"Cast It To China"

Ken Jones

Staff member
John Kay

John is a writer that I have never personally met, but I wish I had. I ran across the following poem one day on the Internet and contacted John who now lives in Germany. John is a native Californian who grew up on the piers. His path however has taken him to even greater loves—as a poet, a teacher, and a husband and father in Germany. I told him about this book and asked him if he would share the poem. He said he was glad to share it and wished me luck with the book.

“Cast It To China” — In Memory of My First Teacher

One more
sentimental walk to the end of the pier
before leaving California, and it could be
Seal Beach, Redondo, Oceanside, Malibu
Huntington, Hermosa, or the Long Beach Pike.
I amble past mostly Mexican and Asian
fishermen who seem to catch nothing in the end,
then past the rickety snack stand that sells
boxes of thin, very salty & very greasy French fries
that I used to buy for a quarter when
I’d go fishing with my grandfather in the era
of Formica dinette sets & Speedy Alka-seltzer.
Always after halibut, we weighted the line
with extra sinkers, attaching the anchovy
a foot higher where it would drift slowly
just above the bottom, just beyond the waves.
We’d leave home in the dark to get the choicest spot,
and we would share a morning libation
of slightly whiskied coffee from a thermos
to warm ourselves above the crisp California sea,
waiting to be ravished by the first rays of light
as the wooden pier fumed with the sweet odor of old bait.
When teaching me to cast, he would say,
“Cast it to China, boy.” And I would reach
into the cosmos, quicken my body & soul,
each muscle, each bone, each eye-socket
wrenching into the cast. After swinging the weights
below the pier between the pilings several times,
getting a rhythm, back and forth,
dipping and rising like a pendulum, all life
would burst into my arms and they’d stretch
toward the sky, the line spinning off the reel
under the gentle touch of my thumb
(everything is suddenly in the thumb)
and the back, the thighs, the hopes & wishes vanish,
and in that thought-free moment
everything falls away as if it’s never been,
and nothing is forthcoming and nothing is left behind,
the leaden weights flying
then falling like a jangle of piano keys
into the thin mist floating above the thick water
someplace almost out of time-maybe China,
a place quickly forgotten in the back spray
and arcane physics of the crashing waves.
Then it’s over-and the buzz resumes,
Elvis on a shoebox radio, the smell of hot French fries,
and my grandfather’s rasp from the Chesterfield
dangling out of the corner of his mouth,
and it’s then that my grandfather would begin
his fishing knot lessons, all of which
I remember to this day-these rituals,
his thick nicotined fingers and my shiny pink fingers,
his sapphire blue eyes and my sapphire blue eyes-focused,
wrapping the nylon line perfectly around the neck
of the hook and then pulling it tight with our teeth.
I remember the day he caught the 50 lb. halibut
and they took a Polaroid and tacked it up
on the weathered, rotting door of the bait tank.
I was in the photo too. My grandfather held the fish up
between us on a hook-scale, and squinting into
the watery sun, I couldn’t have been happier.
They wrote, “Al Magnusson,1954” across the top.
I remember him with reverence
the keen edge of his pocket knife pressed
against his broad Swedish thumb, cutting the line,
but never cutting himself and never cutting me.
He taught me how to slide the thumb and fingers
of one hand up into the gills of a fish
so that I could lift it in the California sun,
look straight into the mirror of its glassy eye
and see China and the long haul over my shoulder.