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).

Dive in: 
  1. M. NourbeSe Philip has used salmon as the central metaphor for this poem. What do you already know about salmon and their lifecycle? How does your understanding of salmon frame your understanding of the struggles and sacrifices of the speaker? Of the speaker's parents?
  2. How many years does it take before the speaker relives the journey of their salmon mother? Why do you think it took this long?
  3. What is the salmon father proud of? What is his fate compared to the salmon mother? Compared to the speaker?
  4. Take a moment to review the adjectives that describe human attributes. Why do you think the author has used this language?
  5. In the second-to-last stanza, what obstacles could the speaker be hurling themselves toward? What odds or barriers work against you from reaching your own “spawning grounds of knotted dreams”?
  6. Writing exercise #1: Make a list of your birthrights. These can be a mix of both concrete and abstract images and ideas. For instance, having artistic talents such as writing or a voice for singing, the ability to work really well under pressure, having a knack for building things, etc. From your list, compose a poem that illustrates what you (or the speaker) have inherited from parents and other family members. What opportunities are possible? What birthrights are empowering? Are any disempowering? How so?
  7. Writing exercise #2: Often immigrant families encourage their kin to accommodate societal norms, such as only speaking English or French, as a means of building a successful life in Canada. This comes at the cost of losing the ability to speak their native language fluently and consequently losing sacred connections to their homeland. Which aspects of your own identity are at the foreground of your understanding of yourself? Which aspects are in the background? (Things to consider: race, faith, learning and physical abilities, gender, health and wellness, age, socio-economic status, etc.) Write a poem inspired by your many intricate and courageous identities. TIP: Try framing the poem by writing 10 or more couplets. Couplets are when stanzas are broken up to form two lines, often sharing the same metre or rhythmic pattern.

Useful Links

 

Listen and watch a clip in conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip as she reexamines a personal account of racial discrimination and in relation to her ancestry, what it means for her, a Black woman, to “be longing to belong somewhere.” (Watch from 5:01 to 9:19) https://youtu.be/LyPgUZ31Izc?t=301

 

This video captures M. NourbeSe Philip performing “Discourse on the Logic of Language" from her poetry collection, She Tries Her Tongue. This piece is especially significant in relation to the writing exercises above, as it interrogates the loss of identity through the manipulation of colonized language. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=424yF9eqBsE

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