Trotline by Joe Wilkins

Each knot is a promise. Each lead weight
mashed in the backteeth’s vise evidence

of a kind of God. Each hook a hand.
The way their hands are so often

empty but fist for a good chucking stone
or jam sandwich. The many-hearted

worms flail. The boys tie the line
to a railroad spike and with a riverrock

the size of a baby sister pound it so far
down into the mud it will never slip.

That’s what they tell one another. Never.
They strip and together walk the trotline

into slow water. Gravel. Slime. Snag
of a drowned plow. The river is a mother.

The line a wish. A hidden current
unscissors their treading kicks. Pulls them

south. Downriver. Even after stars

scratch at the dark they will not sleep.
And in the half-light sleep so poorly

their brains pound with visions. The boys
will rise. Their dirty feet prayers

on the dirt path. Their throbbing blood
the spirit’s visitation. They will pull in

the line. Find the thin, picked-over
skulls-and-spines of two sunfish

and on the last hook a flapping bullhead.
Build a driftwood fire. They will

skewer the bullhead whole. It will sigh
in the flames. The boys will not know

if they are doing it right. The stick
will smolder and crack and the fish fall

into the fire. One of the boys will weep.
The other curse. The smoke will stink.

Like the taste of lead. Like the skin

of the river. The river beneath the river.
The river entering the Os of their mouths

as they are pulled under. As they kick
back to the light. To sputtering,

diademic light. Pulled under again
they drop the line. Flail for the bank.

A gravel toehold and they collapse
in the shallows. Hack and drip.

From raked nostrils blow riverstink.
Soon they are as they have always

been. Hungry. Wide-eyed. Uneasy
in their tight skins. Yet the line

is out. And the nodding of the cattails
becomes a call to worship. The boys rise

and boast. Their hands already filling
with wishful fish. All of this is evidence.


Editor’s Feature in TQ1: Spikes & Rivers: The Work of Joe Wilkins by Elizabeth Eslami

Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his family in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.