Matthew Nienow

In the Year of No Work

I would drive the pre-dawn dark to stake
my spot to fish for dinner, to numb my hands in the ice
bucket, to pluck, from the neat stack, a herring,
to fit the skullcap and pierce the eye with a toothpick,
the body double-hooked, my fingertips glimmering
with the scales of the dead while the line whined free
from the reel, and the bait arced out over the tidal current
on a point in view of   the town where I lived,
where I had become a man
                                                       with no money,
suddenly concerned only with money, for there were mouths
and I had helped to make them —

The eddy swirled, kept my line taut, my
whole body taut though a man a few down the row
laughed, sitting back on his bucket while he pulled in more fish
than he could take.

I hated the other men, hated the ones who caught nothing,
who crossed lines or hooked gulls, who plucked even birds from the sky
and slowly drew them in while they struggled and looked away, even,
finally, in the hands of the man who only wanted them free.

I climbed the breakwater and fished and spoke to no one.

I baited my line and thought of a woman
who would carry my body over the threshold
of our small white house simply with her eyes
because I had brought something home,
for her, for us, our boys at my side
while one fish was divided and indeed did feed many —

(Now to sift the facts for truth):

I reeked of   the sea and had nothing to show for it.

Darkling saltwater for a dream
and no other place to be.


First appeared in Poetry (November 2013) and also found in House of water (alice James Books, 2016)


It's the Boat That Haunts You

And so it is, the boat has come to own you,
has learned to speak a language you cannot help

but agree with, its voice the dark lapping
of water against the hull, its song the wind

in the stays while you sleep, dreaming of a bowsprit
to hold you against the waves, and the boat

curls golden bracelets of cedar
around your wrists as you plane each

plank, its touch the dream of a body becoming
whole—to make the shape, to be shaped—and the boat

says please, says the honed edge
against clear grain is my small prayer to your devotion.

May you forget your life, may you
always be close.


First appeared in New England Review and also appears in House of Water (Alice James Books, 2016)


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