SD Poets You Should Know: Lee Ann Roripaugh

South Dakota’s current Poet Laureate, Lee Ann Roripaugh teaches in and runs the creative writing program at the University of South Dakota. She’s published three books of poetry and one that’s harder to characterize but walks the line between poetry and lyric creative nonfiction. Her first book won the National Poetry Series, and she’s also won the Randall Jarrell International Poetry Prize. She’s one of my favorite poets, let alone contemporary poets, let alone South Dakota poets; a good introduction to her command of prosody and image is her poem “Dream Carp” on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

Dream Carp
By Lee Ann Roripaugh

People traveled from miles away to see
my paintings of fish—
the jeweled armor of their scales, the beadlike

set of their eyes in
rubbery socket rings, the glimmering
swish of fin and tail

so real it seemed that you could almost dip
a net deep into
the paper and pull up the arching wet

weight of a golden carp,
a shiny trout, or the dark muscular
heft of a bass with

its mouth stretched into the surprised, wiry
“oh” of a child’s wind
sock. I captured my models from the sea,

lake, and goldfish pond
in the back garden, so careful not to
let their mouths be torn

by the hook, their scales chipped, or the silky
tissue of their tails
ripped by a clumsy hand. I kept them in

large glass bowls, fed them
mosquito wings or dry silkworm pupas
offered from chopsticks,

and when I was finished making sketches,
I quickly took them
back and set them free again. Every

night I dream I swim
with these fish as a golden carp—black spots
on cloisonné scales,

pulled to the surface by the deceptive
creamy luster of
the moon or the sizzle of firefly lights

across the water.
And every night I am tempted once
again by the smell

of the baited hook, by my predictable
hunger for earthly
things, and each time I am surprised again

by the stinging hook
in my lip that pulls me mercilessly
into the bright air,

setting my gills on fire, the sharp, silver
pain of the knife that
slits me open so easily from tail

to throat to reveal
the scarlet elastic of my raw gills,
the translucent film

of my air sac, the milky rise of my
stomach, and the gray
marbled coil of my intestines. I rise

late each day, and work
in brighter light. When I die, I will
have my paintings brought

down to the lake and slipped into the water.
First the edges of
ink will blur, and then there will be a great

flurry as the fins,
tails, and bodies begin blossoming in-
to life again, each

fish detaching from its canvas of silk
or rice paper—a
swirl of color, motion, swimming away.


I love LOTS of things about this poem, but here I’ll focus on the form and on a couple of my favorite images. The poem is composed of tercets alternating between two long lines with a short line in between, and two short lines with a long line in between. The long lines are ten syllables, and the short five, so these two-stanza sets cohere the poem around a unifying pattern but also give it a sense of movement, of going out and back in, alternatingly, like a fish swimming this pond or this lake. The 20th-century poet Marianne Moore is famous for her use of syllabics, and this poem shares not only that formal organizing structure, but also Moore’s great eye for the specifics of the natural world.

I have two favorite images here—the first is the “creamy luster / of the moon,” and the second “the scarlet elastic of my raw gills.” One normally doesn’t imagine things that “luster” to be “creamy,” but of course they can be, so the image feels right and surprising, especially about the moon as seen through water. The “scarlet elastic” image creates a metaphor for the gills but does so in a syntax that privileges materiality over metaphor—imagine how much less compelling “my raw gills of scarlet elastic” would be. I’m still interested in “scarlet elastic,” though, I’ll admit. Roripaugh is among the best at inventing surprising adjective-noun combinations (if you’re drawn to phrases like “creamy luster” and “scarlet elastic,” I’d also recommend the poetry of Claudia Emerson, though I’ll warn you that it doesn’t quite have this irreverence, this bodily immediacy, and she’s certainly not a South Dakotan).

I don’t think it’s an accident that both of my favorite images come from the part of the poem after which the speaker, the painter, becomes the carp in dreams. To me, the poem hits another register of lyricism there, feeling immediate and lush perhaps because inhabiting the body of something that’s been the focus of such intense study for so long—it’s a moment of empathy enacted directly.

Featured image by Elizabeth Roberts under the creative commons license on Flickr. Post by Barbara Duffy.

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