Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #10, Fall 2003]

Lines on Lake Winnebago
By Gary C. Busha
Marsh River Editions, 2002

Reviewed by Karla Huston

Each time I read Gary Busha's book Lines on Lake Winnebago, I am hooked and pulled back to the days when my grandfather picked me up from the neighborhood ice-skating rink, skates still attached to my feet, and plunked me on the surface of Lake Neshonoc. He'd chip holes in the ice while I circled his tarpaper shanty with a snow shovel, making a path to nowhere in particular.
With each thunk of the chisel
the clear ice chips catch the sun
and glint in cascades of light.

As I chop, the ice shoves to shore
tearing itself to shards.
The shoreline braces itself
like a man pulling up his collar.

Lines on Lake Winnebago takes me back to Lake Onalaska, where my husband and friend speared carp and left them for me to guard in the August sun, the carp, fly-speckled and sweating in the middle of the flat-bottom boat.
when days tumble over dusty-headed men
at work, gaffing the innards of earth,
some will regret the action of lack of it
and point to a waning moon squatting
on stagnant pools where fat,
yellow-bellied carp gulp at the surface
before sinking, unlike the sun.

Lines on Lake Winnebago reminds me of simpler times, of "tanned river boys" with cane poles, hair bleached white hot, and bare feet. It reminds me of tree frogs hissing from the shore, the call of Red-wing blackbirds, and dragon flies dipping off the gunwales of boats. This is a time when boys made do with what they had, made lures out of liver and worms, learned about life from the end of a bull-nosed pliers and an adult who knew that catching fish and being outside were the cure for nearly everything that ailed you.

Busha's images are fragrant with memory, of lazy days, of summer water, "warm as pee"; of autumn "blistering yellow and black"; of winters of sail skating with a bedsheet, ice chips glinting a "mist of fine ice." His lines recall lessons learned from his ol' man, his ol' man's cronies and a hefty swallow of blackberry wine, "the warm liquid [that] sing[s] in my throat."

Busha uses the language of reverence and respect for the natural world. The color yellow seeps into many poems, from the yellow sun to "fat yellow-bellied carp," to bullheads sputtering in "hot butter." In the poem "Spider Island," "Each autumn blisters yellow and black," while the boys trap garden spiders that "hang plum-like" from webs. In the poem "Nothing Biting, "Each autumn lily pad / draws from my center / its yellow belly of age, / drunk with murmurs." These are poems in celebration of nature and solitude. In a tribute to Whitman, he celebrates:
An unknown voice
and the thump in the dark, I celebrate,
and I celebrate butter-fried fish
and scent of mustard,
and wet wood in autumn.
I celebrate people with beating hearts,
who keep time in rockers on wood porches.

A surprise in the center of these poems is a short story about trading baseball cards. Two friends make a late-night deal on a dock, but there is more. Busha shows the reader how to pull nightcrawlers from their holes, how to thread them on hooks and lower their squirming bodies into the dark lake. He shows us how to trap bullfrogs in weeds. He shows us how to catch, handle, and skin bull heads. He shows us about chewing bubblegum, about making trades for baseball players, about the tug and pull friendship.
"If you don't want Slaughter, I can get rid of him at school. I can get Mantle easy. Aww, I forgot. Ma won't let me buy anymore bubblegum until I chew up what I got."

From crayfish to carp to crappies to bullheads, pickerel, bluegills, bullfrogs and northern pike and large mouth bass, Busha's poems remind us that there is much to learn from the end of a fishing pole, much to hold close and dear. Mostly these poems are filled with a kind of happy loneliness, of becoming, of following the line back to his roots. He reminds us that "it's a perfect day for fishing" and remembering.


Lines on Lake Winnebago is available for $8 from Marsh River Editions, M233 Marsh Road, Marshfield, Wisconsin 54449.


Karla Huston has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in several state and national publications, including The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Wisconsin Review, Cimarron Review, Nightsun, The Comstock Review, Rattle, and others. She serves on the board of directors for the Fox Valley Writing Project and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts & Features | Guidelines | CBR Press