Prior to becoming a Richmond-based lawyer, John Skapski was a commercial gillnet fisherman who gained his MA in Creative Writing. His account of professional fishing is Green Water Blues (Harbour 1978). It was preceded by poetry in In the Meshes (Sono Nis, 1970) by Jan Mieszko Skapski, with a cover illustration by Phil Corlie. Both Green Water Blues and In The Meshes, are based on his experiences operating a gillnetter, which he still owns. He was born in London, England in 1945, lived briefly in South America, and came to B.C. in 1953. He initially studied engineering at UBC before graduating in Creative Writing. His third collection is Tides at the Edge of the Senses (Libros Libertad Publishing 2007).
The Tides at the Edge of the Senses
from Alan Haig-Brown
John Skapski grew up along the cannery row at Steveston in the mouth of British Columbia’s Fraser River in the 1950s and ‘60s. Those were the days when it was still easy, even inevitable, that a young man would go fishing and he did. A few years into his adult life he found himself living upcoast at Pender Harbour. He was married and the owner of a nice salmon gillnet boat. Fishing was good but the marriage was coming to end.
“She told me that I should go back to school,” John recalled recently, “And that is how I became a lawyer.”
But the saltwater and sockeye fever were deep in Skapsi’s veins and his psyche. Setting up a legal practice back in his Steveston home town he took on mostly fishermen clients. That way, when he went up coast for a summer of salmon fishing, his clients were doing the same thing so there was no clash of careers. Both clients and catches got due attention.
But fishing and lawyering are only two of Skapsi’s contributions to his fishing community. Recently he has published his third book of poetry. “Tides at the Edge of the Senses” (Libros Libertad Publishing 2007) follows on “In the Meshes” (1970) and “Green Water Blues” (1978). Dedicated to Rivers Inlet and Milbank Sound, two famous salmon fishing grounds, and to the fish and fishermen who worked these waters, the book contains verses that will conjure images for fishermen from BC or any tidal waters.
“Sunset gives way to early dusk.
Too low for first stars
Fishermen’s lanterns appear.”
From Night Run: Guayaquil
As Skapski turns 60 he is no longer fishing but he is still active assisting fishermen with the legal complexities of license and quota transfers as well as all the other bureaucratic rig tides confronting modern fishermen. In several poems he gives voice to the melancholy felt by fishermen who have lived through the sad evolution of fisheries in recent decades.
“Time, this teredo
Tunneling through the cedar timbered base
Of all our lives.
And memory, the empty wake
Of its hunger, the riddle
Of this riddling
A propeller churning through
The liquid past: reverberations
Of recollections, through this hull.”
From Fall Fisher: Two
One of the great joys of reading poetry is to discover simple words for simple pleasures.
“Dead rain on this flat calm.
The sodden cool of solitude.”
From Netshed Notes: Two
This is a collection to spark the memories of old fishermen and caution the youngest of fishermen. At once an exaltation and a lament. It marks as clearly as the line between flood and ebb, the line that commercial fishing has crossed. There will be poetry in the new fisheries but this is the poetry for those of us who were there in the best of times.
Tides at the Edge of the Senses
Tides at the Edge of the Senses by John Skapski (Libros Libertad $12.95)
A fisherman mystic philosopher, John Skapski, now a lawyer, spent many decades drifting on the tides. His first book in thirty years, Tides at the Edge of the Senses, is an elegiac tribute, tinged with surreal imagery, to fishing, gillnetters, the fishing community on this coast and to the fish. He knows that world intimately but is never romantic about it; too much discomfort, fear, boredom, and accident.
Sartre of the chuck, Skapski proffers salty sutras on being and non-being. “Tomorrow is only one permutation of yesterdays.” “Things are what they are, and also what thought would have them be.” Though he has a weakness for abstractions, (life, death, always, never), Skapski’s best pieces are short and imagistic. “The words lay beached on the air / Stretched like kelp on its dry frames.” “Thunder like a cat, rubs its back along the air.”
There is a lot of death in this book. Not only the decay/spawn life cycle of salmon but also the constant reminder of the men who have drowned. He’s philosophical, too, about the demise of that fishing culture, blaming no one, but the affectionate memories are tinged with regret. Though he has had a love/hate relationship with the lifestyle, he’s also clearly been hooked.
--review by Hannah Main-Van Der Kamp
[BCBW 2008] "Poetry"