Week 329: When I asked for fish, by Carl Sandburg

‘Beautiful’ seems an odd epithet to apply to a poem about a man eating eggs in a fish restaurant that’s run out of fish, but I do find this piece by the American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) beautiful in its oddball way. Perhaps it is that ‘shining breast of the Ohio river’, perhaps it is just its quiet celebration of a commonplace moment of contemplative aliveness, but anyway, I like it. It’s from a 1928 collection called ‘Good Morning, America’.

When I asked for fish in the restaurant facing the Ohio river, with fish signs and fish pictures all over the wooden, cracked frame of the fish shack, the young man said ‘Come around next Friday – the fish is all gone today’.

So I took eggs, fried, straight up, one side, and he murmured, humming, looking out at the shining breast of the Ohio river, ‘and the next is something else, and the next is something else’.

The customer next was a hoarse roustabout, handling nail kegs on a steamboat all day, asking for ‘three eggs, sunny side up, three, nothing less, shake us a mean pan of eggs’.

And while we sat eating eggs, looking at the shining breast of the Ohio river in the evening lights, he had his thoughts and I had mine thinking how the French who found the Ohio river named it La Belle Rivière meaning a woman easy to look at.

Carl Sandburg

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