I Am Counter Current – Guest Poetry Blog # 21 – Introducing the Latest Contributor, Canadian Poet Kate Marshall Flaherty– Part One of Two

Canadian poet Kate Marshall Flaherty. Photo Credit: John Flaherty


i am shimmer-skinned,
spawning              flecks of red, 
i flick
       my gills wide for breath 
and wriggle 
     side to side in fresh water

i must swim up against
smoothed rocks, the current, 
splashes and curls 
of small rapids         that gush 
      fresh water through me 

i am counter-current;             push
up against downspouts 
   and falls, 
i fall
back, fin on tail, tumble in trying
and trying to jump 
out of my skin-river,
up the waterfall 
             pounding me down

dorsal-finned and spine-supple,
i can do this—
can thrash            against 
the backwards tide 

            and frantic, 

i right 
myself, sparkle 
in droplets and spray—
                           against water weight

to spawn, 
         lay and leave 
                  my golden roe—
Kate Marshall Flaherty from Titch, Piquant Press, 2023.


So pleased to have Kate Marshall Flaherty join the Recovering Words Guest Poetry Blog Series with this Part One of her two part series. Part  Two will feature the Canadian poet Ronna Bloom.

I remember so clearly the first time I connected with Kate Marshall Flaherty. It was at a poetry reading hosted by Quattro Books of Toronto where I was launching my debut poetry collection: Hyaena Season. We might have been introduced before the reading. That I don’t remember. But I do recollect when I heard her read her poem Every Boy Needs a Stone. I was electrified by its images, it repetitions and the way she created such mystery around the image of a stone. A poet’s true gift. Here’s an excerpt from the last part of part one of the poem and the stanza that is part two:

from Every Boy Needs a Stone

Every boy should have a stone
to suck on
when words have gone dry
or rage has cracked his voice box— so he can speak again

that sorry sound.

Every boy could
have a stone just to batten flaps in a storm,
shim a structure,
dam a crack,
flint a light
or tap at a window
where love looks down.

Every boy needs
to swallow
at least one stone,
to feel it lodged in his throat, that breathless choke, fish-mouth gape and gasp— every boy
needs to be silenced just once. To be a stone.

Kate Marshall Flaherty from Stone Soup, Quattro Books, 2014

How wonderfully Kate uses the image of the stone to highlight so much of a what a boy can be. And there is an edge to the poem as well. Not just sweetness and light. Part two for me bring something almost ominous into the poem. An initiation, a rite of passage, of sorts. The gravity of this phrase: everyboy/ needs to be silenced just once. To be a stone. The shocking power and wisdom in this lodges deep in me, once a boy. Did I swallow that stone? If so, how did I or my life remove it? Ouch!

I once heard a master poet describe what he called the “isness” of poetry as opposed to the “aboutness” of prose. And in Kate’s poem salmon above she gives us a master class in creating isness. The isness of a salmon fighting its way upstream. Truly a tour de force, this poem. A lyrical delight. As I read the poem I am the salmon, I experience what it is to fight against all odds to reach the spawning grounds:

dorsal-finned and spine-supple,
i can do this—
can thrash            against 
the backwards tide 

            and frantic, 

And as you will read below her poem salmon is not just the portrayal of a salmon’s literal up-river journey. It becomes with all its vitality the story also of her journey to find full recovery from cancer. I hope you will enjoy the journeys Kate takes us on in this blog post as much as I have. Now, over to Kate.


I was honoured and delighted to be invited by Richard Osler to share a few poems and reflections on his Recovering Words blog. I love wordplay, and so, like Micheline Maylor whose words I also admire, (Guest Poetry Blog Series #6) I played around with bits of the word recovering: re-cover-ing, and considered the prefix re as in to do again, go back; and the gerund, an ongoing verb with the song of ing repeating; and the root word cover as in verb to put something on top of, in front of in order to conceal, to protect … and all of the sudden I couldn’t help but think of these three poems in my latest book, Titch as somehow each striving to recover, restore, reflect, reconcile something …

The first poem, salmon, is one of my ever-growing body of eco poems. I want to explore our desperate need to recover and create sustainable practices as we cohabit this earth. We need to learn from Indigenous wisdom about going back to mother earth, towards that recovery (and reinvention) of our relationship with the planet, our small integrated place in it, our reconciliation with what we have done to it. This will take hard work, no less than the upstream struggle of the salmon to return to her place of origin to lay her eggs.

In salmon, I play again with words and space and the struggle of water-weight, and going against the destructive tide. I wanted this poem to be more about the journey than the destination. I wanted the ongoing is-ness of being in the present movement, to be in every drop and wriggle.You can see, also, from this poem how I love Gerard Manley Hopkin’s sprung rhythm. I wanted to splash around in that joyous form even through struggle with this poem.

I wrote salmon after completing a healing journey through breast cancer: lumpectomy, chemo, radiation, another surgery, and re-cover-ing my health and strength. I would never wish cancer on anyone, and yet it invited me to go deeply into a place of surrender and re-priorizing (is there such a word?) to really get to know myself more deeply, to honour the Light within that shines through dis-ease and is eternal. It gave me permission to let go of all that was toxic in my life and embrace all that was life-giving. I had chosen not to go the allopathic route on my healing journey, but rather trust natural and traditional healing/medicines, but one by one my three children begged me to do everything. And so I did it all, trusting in Divine/cosmic healing beyond any one modality.

I also see the courage and fierceness of the salmon as being representative of a woman rising above the cultural and historical down-push. It is nothing short of miraculous to see a salmon relentlessly wriggle and leap up waterfalls! I have seen it at Kagawog Falls in Manitoulin, when the water was rock-shallow, and in the Rockies, where grizzly bears awaited with insatiable hunger. It almost seems crazy to give your life to get back to source, to lay the fragile roe of the future. And yet the instinct to do this is incredible and secures a next generation of alevin. (Even that word seems to have the rising energy of leaven.) I guess it was that energy that got me through 24 weeks of chemo and radiation. I found so much joy in my healing journey despite the many challenges and hardships. It reminded me to celebrate the now, and to take nothing for granted. I hope there is a balance of fierceness and delight in this poem, and a core of resilience.

I wrote this next poem during the beginning of the pandemic, when folks were hoarding toilet paper, a fact that was both outrageous and hilarious, but pointed to a deeper, darker instinct in a time of fear. In the compassionate practice of opposite action, we want to respond not react; we want to respond to fear with kindness, not attack.

and the danger ended—

         we came out of our hiding places,
the undershrub, old leaning fence,
         Mrs. Liebowitz’s shed, or the tire mound
in the tangled ravine—

and Mooney called ally-olly-incomfree again,
         so the youngest Dunphy would hear,
wriggle out of the crack, smirking,
         and we’d wipe the weeds from our pants
and faces, sighing a deep heave

that WE were not IT; my brother had
      been tagged, and it was his turn to
hide his eyes and count, and hunt, and
            search for the most exposed, the one
who couldn’t hide fast enough, or
            find a place just right for a small body.

and the danger spiked again, electric
      in the spine-hair of fear
that we might be caught, be tagged, be the next IT—
      and some of us grabbed a youngster by the hand
to stuff them safe in a leaf pile, and some of us

kicked the crab ladder off the wall, so no one could
      follow; and some just hid, some ran, one

all of us in the game, and not, wondering
        why the chill of the chase, night after
Kate Marshall Flaherty from Titch, Piquant Press, 2023

For me, writing poetry is a spiritual practice. So often an image will come to me in a dream, silent moment of reflection, nature hike, newsflash, or some small epiphany with a grandchild in the presence of some small everyday miracle or injustice. The gratitude I feel in that moment becomes the utterance of praise I want to wrestle with in words, or the grief is the lament I want to vocalize.

I recall the titch of panic in childhood games of tag, chasing to see Who would be IT. I felt that same global panic rising in those early days of distancing and lockdown, with much higher stakes. I saw equal measures of kindness and attack, of music-making and finger-pointing, of sharing and hoarding. I wanted to acknowledge the human instinct to say, I got mine, and the duende in that thrum and thrill of trying to hide from danger. It was a hard poem to write, one of those poems that wrestled with me as I put myself in each of the character’s place. I hope I am the child who grabs another by the hand to run together … or even turn to be kind in the face of fear.

It is fascinating to look back on what was the seed, the insight, epiphany or, as I mention in my latest book, the the titchy little titch of something that sparked a poem. In writing Sel, my poem that follows, it was seeing the image of  the tiny body of the Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, washed up on shore. I could not get that image out of my mind, of the coast guard hugging his small, waterlogged body close to his chest with the sea roiling in the background.

Then when I read Naomi Shihab Nye’s line, (which became my poem’s epigraph) something flooded me and I began to scribble thoughts about tears, saltwater, sea and sanguine things. I wanted to explore all the essential commonalities of being human. I made a web of salt and its properties and associations. I wanted to grieve, protest, implore, to pray for change. I often write my poems in first person. I wanted this poem to expand from I to we to us.


I would never scold an onion
for causing tears
—Naomi Shihab Nye

I learned
the salt content of tears
is the same as blood
and the sea—

that lysosomes
are healing enzymes,

and sea salt
has nourishing minerals.

We are the same three-fourths water
as the earth.

Grey Dead Sea salt is the same
as pinkish Himalayan;

both, so far from home.

Tears are the same saline
whether they fall
to the ground unnoticed
or streak cheeks pressed close
in a refugee boat. They dissolve
the borders, or should.

Let us not wait
for another boy washed
up on shore.

Salt, enzyme, saline, suffering—
let fear dissolve into
the pool that is us all.

Kate Marshall Flaherty, ibid

To view a video of Kate reading Sel please click here.

I am blessed to have a friend who is a wonderful composer and microfilm maker, and I love collaborating with him and seeing the cross-pollination of words and music. So, he and I went to the striking Toronto East End Water Plant to film me reciting this poem at sunset. (See link above.) Well, the sunset arrived before our film equipment was set up, but we decided to give it a go anyway, and trust the words and water would speak for themselves.

Looking back over the film, as in looking back over old poems, I see places where I might have tinkered her or tightened there … I do believe a poem is never completely finished. We edit according to who we are today. I could re-write this poem in light of images I see in the news today. And of course, it would become a new poem. I think of current events, and I want to reiterate that final line: the pool that is us all.

Quick Bio of Kate
From Piquant Press

Kate Marshall Flaherty has published six books of poetry, was short-listed for the Mitchell Poetry Prize, and has published in numerous Canadian and International journals, such as the Literary review of Canada, Vallum, Grain, Room, Malahat, Trinity, Windsor and Saranac Reviews. She writes spontaneous “Poems of the Extraordinary Moment” (P.O.E.M.s) for charities, and guides StillPoint Writing and Poetry Editing Circles in person and online. Click here to see her books, workshops and performance poetry at her website.

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