Salmon Courage

M. NourbeSe Philip

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Here at Woodlands, Moriah,

these thirty-five years later,

still I could smell her fear.

Then, the huddled hills would not have

calmed her, now as they do me.

Then, the view did not snatch

the panting breath, now, as it does

these thirty-five years later, to the day,

I relive the journey of my salmon mother.


This salmon woman of Woodlands, Moriah

took the sharp hook of death

in her mouth, broke free and beat

her way upstream, uphill; spurned

all but the challenge of gravity,

answered the silver call of the moon,

danced to the drag and pull of the

tides, fate a silver thorn in her side,

brought her back here to spawn with

the hunchbacked hills humping the horizon,

under a careless blue sky.


My salmon father now talks of how

he could walk over there, to those same hills,

and think and walk some more with his dreams,

then that he had,

now lost and replaced.

His father (was he salmon?)

weighted him with the millstones of

a teacher’s certificate, a plot of land

(believed them milestones to where he hadn’t been),

that dragged him downstream to the ocean.


Now, he and his salmon daughter

face those same huddled, hunchbacked hills.

She a millstoned lawyer, his milestone

to where he hadn’t been.

He pulls her out, a blood rusted weapon,

to wield against his friends

“This, my daughter, the lawyer!”

She takes her pound of dreams neat,

no blood under that careless blue sky,

suggests he wear a sign around his neck,

“My Daughter IS a Lawyer,”

and drives the point home,

quod erat demonstrandum.


But I will be salmon.

Wasn’t it for this he made the journey

downstream, my salmon father?

Why then do I insist on swimming

against the tide, upstream,

leaping, jumping, flying floating,

hurling myself at under, over,

around all obstacles, backwards

in time to the spawning

grounds of knotted dreams?

My scales shed, I am Admiral red,

but he, my salmon father, will not

accept that I too am salmon,

whose fate it is to swim against the time,

whose lodestar is to be salmon.


This is called salmon courage my dear father,

salmon courage,

and when I am all spawned out

like the salmon, I too must die — 

but this child will be born,

must be born salmon.

“Salmon Courage” by M. NourbeSe Philip, from Salmon Courage. Copyright © 1983 by M. NourbeSe Philip. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Source: Revival: An Anthology of the Best Black Canadian Writing (McClelland & Stewart, 2006).