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  • Salmon Suite
  • Judith Roche (bio)

This series by Seattle poet Judith Roche depicts the five species of salmon found in the Northwest. The poems were written as part of the “Salmon in the City” project of the 2001 Seattle Arts Commission, whose aim was to raise public awareness that in 1999, Puget Sound’s chinook salmon were added to the list of “regionally threatened” species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. A printed version of the poems was designed by Barbara Longo and is displayed at the Hiram Chittenden Locks in Seattle’s historic Ballard district, the gateway to the Seattle watershed. Constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1917, the Locks include a fish ladder for migrating salmon. Visitors to the installation can press a button at the fish-viewing windows and hear “Salmon Suite” being read aloud.


Steelhead January to May

Deep waders have found a vein     to the heart of cold,       the resplendence of river, the grandeur of muscle     and elegant economy of spirit.

They leave lives unattended,     wives in childbed       husbands in beery bars, to step into swift waters.

They’re there for the fight. Wild winter-run spawners, Steelhead are trout on steroids, river’s darlings,     the prize at the end of every sea-slung [End Page 161]

rainbow, not stay-at-homes like their cousins, but heroes on the romance of the journey.     Deep waders understand this

at pre-lingual level. There are many kinds of love in life.

Railbird, Copper Demon, Queen of the Waters, Parmacheene Belle, Grizzly King, Silver Doctor, Wet Spider, Princess,     spoon and spinner.

The Samish, Stillagamish, Cowlitz, Chehalis, Hoh, Humptulips, Nisqually, Quinault, Skagit, Skykomish,     Toutle, Washougal.

Flyline and cast,     weight and diameter, silk to monofilament. If spirit is the fusion of thought and feeling

connecting one being to another, and kairos a moment when everything can change. Of the many,     this is one kind of love.


Smolt Mid-April to late July       Smolt travel backwards until they reach salt water.

Being young, I don’t know     where I go. I face my lake     and float       backward into my future. Trembling on the edge     of what I can’t yet see,       green-shadowed I go with water’s flow and trust strange       rapture singing in my blood,     ride the river like a knife’s edge. [End Page 162]

Breathe and float     oxygen and insect,       cut and rise, I’ve seen where I’ve been     so, rehearse my return tracing it in latticed strands     recorded in starry lace       fabric of night. Current pulls me down     to spill over smolt slide, slip the snap of gray bird’s beak,

turn to face ocean opening flat and wide       beyond imagining   no horizon,     taste first fingers of bitter brine,       flick silver and learn salt. Because my throat itches     I swallow what awaits me. Begin young, I’ve cut my heart     on the dream       of the high seas.

Celestial Navigation

Sockeye June to August (October)

I remember, I remember the hollowed nest in stream of stars the size of my eyes, I remember the swell of water, shape of light, celestial order to mirror the song of river, the constellations glitter into place to make the map—     Scorpio, Virgo, Libra, Canis Major— Sirius, the brightest, Orion, my own clean cold water over stones, the whir of the earth spinning through starry sky, drag of tide waters lifting the estuary, sweet taste of reeds and rushes, edged sedge grass in dance with wind and water flow, in silver pool pulsing scent, deep home loam, the river where I was born. [End Page 163]

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Fish and bird creature. 1927. Graphite on paper by Emily Carr. Royal British Columbia Museum, British Columbia Archives. pdp08855

[End Page 164]

The River Dance

Chinook/Sockeye  August to September (October)Aflame with the crimson color of marriage, the salmonSeek their lovers.For the salmon, the actSpinning out lifeIs an act of deathFor the salmonLife lives in death.The salmon bets its life on love.   from “Salmon Coming Home in Search of Sacred Bliss”   by Mieko Chikappu; translated from the Ainu by   Jane Corddry...