Joseph Radke


For the Ice Fishermen of Oconto Falls, WI


They wait for winter,

wait until the very top of the river stills,

frozen white, until it reflects the leafless

trunks of shoreline birches,

wait for bitter cold

to scrub the landscape clean,

sterile, so they can cut holes,

scoop out the ice,

drop lines in the fluid undercurrent

and drag life into the chilled air.


They sit in the open

on overturned plastic buckets

or in artlessly painted wooden shacks,

gazing into ice water or eyeing

a series of  tip-ups, while drinking cans

of cheap beer, whiskey from flasks.


After they hook the limit, they

come back home and sit in basements

or at kitchen tables covered

with yesterday’s newspaper, sever

heads at the gills, finally ridding themselves

of that unclosing eye, slit

the bellies and scrape out guts and eggs,

store the corpses in freezers.


They return again,

even as the cold fails them,

even after clear water appears

at the shore.  They return

until the creak of the ice

gives its final threat.


Then they wait, until Friday,

the catch thawed and fried,

served with Old Milwaukee

and potato salad.  They eat it –

leaving plates empty

except for white piles

of spit out bones.