Essays

Sturgeon: The Primordial and the Fish

Karen Solie’s “Sturgeon” explores the titular fish as it lives in a prairie river, focusing on one specific encounter being captured by the persona. But the sturgeon is more significant than just a mere fish—it represents a primordial nature that must confront a growing humanity. There are hence two aspects of the sturgeon, the primordial and the fish, allowing Solie to show the conflict with humanity on both a metaphysical and metaphoric level, as well as a physical and literal level, resulting in a complete understanding for the reader.

First, Solie emphasizes the serene naturalness of the river environment using a weather simile: “Jackfish and walleye circle like clouds” (1). In comparison to the jackfish and walleye, who are ephemeral and directionless like clouds, the sturgeon is imbued with a sense of purpose, stressed through sibilance: “he strains / the silt floor” (Solie 1-2). Crucially, the sturgeon is only named in the title. In the text, he is referred to almost respectfully through third person pronouns. By refusing to name the fish, Solie gives him a mysterious and almost divine status. Indeed, he is the master of this domain: it is “his pool” (Solie 2).

Yet there is a threat to this great sturgeon and the nature he represents: mankind. “A lost lure in his lip, / Five of Diamonds, River Runt, Lazy Ike” (Solie 3). The fishing lures represent an artificial invasion—the tripling of technical and trademark terms jars with the natural tranquility of the previous scene. Solie redefines the form of the lure, seeing it as equivalent to an artificial poison slowly poisoning the sturgeon, “a simple spoon, feeding / a slow disease of rust through his body’s quiet armour” (4-5). This idea of nourishment becomes a recurring motif in the poem.

Indeed, the sturgeon is perceived negatively compared to caviar due to its inedibility: “Kin to caviar, he’s an oily mudfish. Inedible” (Solie 6). The persona insults the sturgeon as “an oily mudfish” because it cannot be consumed, and hence is external to man. Yet this inedibility is also its strength, morphing into “Indelible” (Solie 7). The two characteristics are clearly linked. The sturgeon’s permanence stems from its resistance to being consumed. The persona recognizes that the sturgeon represents something more ancient and mysterious, but continues to see the sturgeon in a negative light. “Ancient grunt of sea / in a warm prairie river, prehistory a third eye in his head” (Solie 7-8). The mystical third eye is one of “prehistory”—before recorded humanity. The sturgeon is eternal, consuming time like simple water and sand, “time passes as water and sand / through the long throat of him” (Solie 9-10).

The persona appropriates the sturgeon underneath humanity, “Our bottom feeder / sin-eater” (Solie 15-16). Humanity has no respect for this nature, regarding it as the bottom of the food chain. Interestingly, the persona sees the sturgeon as a “sin-eater,” one who absolves the sins of others. Although humanity cannot consume nature, it can seek to pervade and transform it in its image, “We take our guilts / to his valley” (Solie 11-12). Crucially, the plural pronoun is used here, grouping the reader with the persona and sharing the onus with all of humanity.

Solie then moves to a specific time, “on an afternoon” (17). Where previously, the sturgeon was mysterious and metaphoric, it now becomes a more literal fish that the persona interacts with. The reader is hence allowed access on two level: metaphoric and literal. Still using the third personal pronoun, Solie forces the reader to bear responsibility, feeling guilt for the sturgeon. “We hauled him / up to his nightmare of us and laughed” (18). The persona also explicitly articulates the reasons for such an act: we “left him to die with disdain / for what we could not consume” (Solie 21-22).

But the sturgeon fights back and escapes, returning to the river, “And when he began to heave and thrash over yards or rock” (Solie 23). This struggle is reflected in the meter which uses a tripling of iambs, “began to heave and thrash” to capture the rhythm of the sturgeon struggling towards the river. The sturgeon is placed in juxtaposition against the persona, “we couldn’t hold him though we were teenaged / and bigger than everything” (Solie 25-26). Solie touches on the hubris of humanity, related to humanity’s relative youth. In clear comparison to the ancient sturgeon, humanity is still an adolescent, although we are “bigger than everything,” we cannot dominate everything. “Sturgeon” ends on a beautiful image capturing the unconquerable nature embodied by the sturgeon: “Could not contain / the old current he had for a mind, its pull, / and his body a muscle called river, called spawn” (Solie 26-28). The fish is at once metaphysical and physical, representing nature in both its mind and flesh.

Solie combines the metaphoric mind of the fish from the first section to the literal body of the fish from the second section into one overarching image. The sturgeon is both a symbol of a primordial nature as well as a real fish. Importantly, this resulting composite will continue: it is “spawn,” to be birthed and rebirthed. At the end of “Sturgeon,” the reader understands this on every level, and gains some deeper insight on the relationship between man and nature.

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