River

Ken Morris Jr / Flickr

The McKenzie River’s half in shade, half molten silver
and today, in the shallow water,
a single salmon, has made it back to where
she began, her scintillant body that moves like a river
within the river, undulant, greenish and roseate.
Then she flips on her side and tail-whips the gravel.
The tumble and clack of rocks, the pearly
smoke of silt blossoming. Then quiet, only the murmur of the river,
as she floats, her serious jaw opening and closing,
fins swaying. And again, she strikes
the stones with the flat of her tail. Again, the clatter,
the cloud. Her tail’s scraped white from this quarrying,
building up a ridge, her redd.
The buck swims near, waiting to flood
the eggs with his milt, his beak sharp.
They’ve both stopped eating. Soon their flesh will shred,
rip off in strips, all the ornate
scales in their formal design. They will rot
and feed the river, the flies, the slugs, the crows and trees.
A yellow leaf drifts by, a few strands
of algae wave in the flow. The hen probes
the depth of her nest. The buck swims from side to side over
her back. Over and over. They hover. They vibrate.
They press their rippling bodies together.
Then suddenly, they gape, mouths open in what looks like the rapture
of human sex. The primal, pulsing shock as she gushes, a rush
of eggs, and in the same instant he storms
the nest with his sperm. So for a moment I can’t see through the fog.
And when the water clears, there are the eggs, the crimson roe,
settling into the cracks of the rocks, a deluge.


Read more about The McKenzie River Trust is restoring salmon habitat here.

This piece is from Orion’s Winter 2023 issue, Romance in the Climate Crisis. Special thanks to the NRDC for their generous funding of this issue.

Ellen Bass’s most recent collection, Indigo, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2020. Her other poetry books include Like a Beggar, The Human Line, and Mules of Love. A Chancellor Emerita of the Academy of American Poets, Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz, California, jails and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.