pickerel, n. 1: A young pike; several smaller kinds of N. American pike
pickerel, n. 2: A small wading bird, esp. the dunlin, Calidris alpina

I see it clearly, as though I’d known it myself,
the quick look of Jane in the poem by Roethke,
that delicate elegy, for a student of his thrown
from a horse. My favourite line was always her
sidelong pickerel smile. It flashes across her face
and my mind’s current, that smile, as bright and fast
and shy as the silvery juvenile fish, glimpsed,
it vanishes, quick into murk and swaying weeds,
a kink of green and bubbles all that’s left behind.

I was sure of this, the dead girl’s vividness,
her smile unseated, as by a stumbling stride,
till one rainy Cambridge evening, my umbrella
bucking, I headed toward Magdalene to meet an
old friend. We ducked under The Pickerel’s
painted sign, its coiled fish tilting; over a drink
our talk fell to Roethke, his pickerel smile, and
I had one of those blurrings, glitch, then focus
like at a put-off optician’s trip, when you realise

I’d never noticed: in every stanza after the first,
Jane is a bird: wren or sparrow, skittery pigeon.
The wrong kind of pickerel! In my head, her
smile abruptly evolved: now the stretched beak
of a wading bird, a stint or purre,  swung
into profile. I saw anew the diffident stilts
of the girl, her casting head, her gangly almost
grace, puttering away across a tarnished mirror

of estuary mud. In Homer, the Sirens are winged
creatures: the Muses clipped them for their failure.
By the Renaissance, their feathers have switched
for a mermaid’s scaly tail. In the emblem by Alciato
(printed Padua, 1618) the woodcut pictures a pair
of chicken-footed maids, promising mantric truths
to a Ulysses slack at his mast. But the subscriptio
denounces women, contra naturam, plied with hindparts
of fish: for lust brings with it many monsters.

Or take how Horace begins the Ars Poetica,
ticking off poets who dare too much: mating savage
with tame, or snakes with birds, can only create such
horrors, he says, as a comely waist that winds up
in a black and hideous fish. The pickerel-girl swims
through my mind’s eye’s flummery like a game
of perspectives, a corrugated picture: fish one way
fowl the other. Could it be that Roethke meant
the word’s strange double-ness,  Neither father

nor lover. A tutor watches a girl click-to the door
of his study with reverent care, one winter evening,
and understands Horace on reining in fantasy.

from Loop of Jade (Chatto & WIndus, 2015) © Sarah Howe 2015, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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