Letter to America by R. T. Smith

One Poem

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Whirling Disease

i.m. John Montague

Who are the men and women who deny
the damage, who say the earth, the sky,

the waters are beyond our powers?
I have seen brownies in the Rockies

swimming in circles like hounds by the fire
or a sycophant polishing a lie

for profit or the cold thrill of mischief.
The parasite behind the whirling disease

savages cartilage and skeletal
tissue in fish, dazes, bewilders

akin to senility, twisted circuits.
The victims can no longer feed

efficiently and make easy prey. Now
afflicted specimens have been witnessed

near Foscoe and on the old Watauga,
the rainbow trout likely to infect

brookies, and our own shameless species
spreads the damage, sportsmen dispersing

the lethal cells on their waders and flies,
for we are never so clean as we claim,

especially when we swear no harm
comes to the earth from our passage.

In a pool downstream of the Maury’s bend,
I once saw a young trout curling round,

spores on his scales, fins torn, the shimmer
of his glamor giving way to shadow,

and with all my stealth I edged closer,
parted weeds and reached into reflections,

fingers spread, easing till my hands were
beneath him, then crossed creel-wise

that I might lift him from confusion,
his worst dream, and leave him to swim

deftly downstream with the current
and his own kind. Now it’s clear he could not

be rescued, and I shiver at the thought
of those who claim nature immune

to our meddling. Glassy-eyed with greedy
smiles, they spin. May the waters close over

them, may they choke on their empty
victories, may the snelled hook still

glistening and with no mercy catch deadly
in their throats, ripping at every syllable,

delivering, justly, mischief’s cold thrill.




R. T. SmithR. T. Smith edits Shenandoah for Washington and Lee University, where he also serves as Writer-in-Residence. His sixth book of stories, Doves in Flight, will be out early in 2017, and his 14th book of poems, Summoning Shades, is due later in the year. Smith has work forthcoming in Five Points, Southern Review, and Southern Humanities Review. He lives on Timber Ridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia.
Read poetry by R. T. Smith previously appearing in Terrain.org: two poems, three poems, and three poems.

Header photo of trout by Rocksweeper, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of R. T. Smith by Sarah Kennedy.


Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.