University of Missouri, St. Louis North Campus 1

Sculpture by Joe Chesla

Sculpture by Joe Chesla

Ode to Big Muddy Asian Carp
by Richard Newman

An angler’s hatred for you is instinctive.
You’ve spawned and spread up every confluence,
and here, below the Alton lock and dam,
you litter broken concrete shores by thousands,
yanked from your riverbeds and lined like missiles,
some six-feet long and some the size of loaves.

You all wear the same face: wide-eyed dismay.
Thistles of bones break through your silver skin
while mounds of guts shine in glorious rot.
No gulls swoop down to pick your eyes or innards.
Though you’ve been prized through Chinese dynasties
and sold to Israel as gefilte fish,
no one here will touch your flesh but flies
whose maggots boil between your sun-warmed gills.

Over a hundred feet above your stink
flocks of American white pelicans
caress the currents with their ink-tipped wings.
They pause a moment, studying, then plunge,
a gaudy signature of life in death,
while great blue herons nod to lapping tides.

We brought you here to binge on catfish algae,
but carnage on these banks is your rank triumph,
a florid waste, a drop in the bait bucket
of your relentless population, nudging
out native bluegill, walleye, largemouth bass.
Your silver hoards gleam through our silt waters,
propelled through dams, twisting round each bend
to leap upriver and choke life at the source.

The story of Asian carp is a mixture of beauty and repulsion, of the perseverance of nature, and human intervention that often leads to great misfortune. Through these fish we are confronted with our own nearsightedness, the brutality of our well-intentioned actions, and the state of our current surroundings.
Reading Richard Newman’s poem revealed a structure and mode of communication that set me on a specific path for the design, construction, and installation of this piece. I wanted to cultivate a space to entertain this poem. Siting is an important aspect to reflection, especially of poetry; thus, I created a place of repose. The wooden structures are spare and refined in their presence, on this site by the lake, with their heavy, grounded footings, rectilinear forms with wavelike endings, and far-reaching spires. They offer a moment of rest.
However, once you are seated on the sculpture, the eye of a great fish confronts you. Uncomfortable in scale and proximity, the fish challenge you to seek a way out. Your repose is interrupted. Their eyes direct you to a mailbox, a black metal form, in which one finds Newman’s poem. Intimate, domestic, and distinctly human, the mailbox signifies the man-made elements within the poem, as well as the site itself.