I just read Annie Proulx’s ‘gay Western’ “Brokeback Mountain” for the first time. I saw the film adaptation with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal just after it and I, came out ten or more years ago, but had never read the story until now. I’m amazed at how faithful the film is to the story. In both the original and the adaptation, Alma, Ennis/Heath Ledger’s character’s now ex-wife (played by Michelle Williams), confronts Ennis one Thanksgiving in the kitchen about the real purpose of his intermittent fishing trips with his old buddy/secret-not-so-secret-lover Jack Twist/Jake Gyllenhaal. In one of the most poignant parts of the film, Alma says:
(See the scene here)
Alma Beers Del Mar: You still go fishing with Jack Twist?
Ennis Del Mar: Not often.
Alma Beers Del Mar: You know, I used to wonder how come you never brought any trouts home. You always said you caught plenty, and you know how me and the girls like fish. So one night I got your creel case open the night before you went on one of your little trips — price tag’s still on it after five years— and I tied a note to the end of the line. It said, ‘Hello, Ennis, Bring some fish home. Love. Alma.’ And then you come back looking all perky and said you caught a bunch of browners and you ate them up. Do you remember? I looked in that case first chance I got, and there was my note still tied there. That rod hadn’t touched water in its life.
Ennis Del Mar: Don’t mean nothing, Alma.
This image of an untouched fishing rod as a symbol for frustrated or unfulfilled heterosexuality got me thinking. When I was about six, my Dad bought me a new kiddies’ fishing rod, so I could fish during holiday trips. I was very excited. I loved the idea of fishing. The rod was one of many cheap products lined up in a stack to one side near the frozen food aisle in some neighbourhood supermarket. Despite there being nothing particularly momentous about its provenance, my father buying me a fishing rod felt profound. I wasn’t particularly interested in the prospect of eating any fish that I might catch. At that time I spent more time communicating with animals than humans, and I suppose I hoped that one day I might hook one of the talking fish I had read about in storybooks, the kind that wants only mercy and has salt-stained secrets from another, wholly unsuspected world to share. The sea and water featured strongly in the personal mythology of my childhood. As a family we went to the beach often.
I was captivated too by a series of graded readers I encountered at school, children’s tales that revolved around a coterie of pirates represented by different colours, who in their adventures interacted with an evil dwarf, terrifying sea-witches, and a regal, golden griffin with the delicate hands of a man who lived in a cavern beneath the waves and dispensed magical gifts. The best and most noble of the pirates was the Blue one. Tall and lean, he was dauntless, and resembled, I suppose, Heath Ledger. The Blue Pirate – who was almost always alone, surrounded by miles of ocean, barely a princess in sight – would be visited periodically by his Griffin friend and helper in intimate, hallucinatory flashes. As the books’ and readers’ complexity progressed, it was revealed that the Blue Pirate was seeking a fabled paradise in the West, an island called Akroo-akree whose name he would sing out with longing from the prow of his ship, a half-dirge half-battle cry, that was carried away with the yelling of gulls on the wind.
The Griffin liked the Blue Pirate best, and on reflection these two figures became for my boyish self an image of idealized masculinity. Sometimes I would play at being a sea witch, a bent hag hanging with rotten cords of seaweed, who only wished to be left alone in her cave, who shouted spells to the waves to push all and any entitled and covetous pirates away. I thought about the Blue Pirate a lot but mostly from a distance, studying him, captivated yet wary, as he went about his activities with the untroubled calm and grace of one who the world and fate had favoured. But most of all I wanted to meet, to be like, the Griffin, that queer animal at once lion and bird, who lived neither in the plains nor the air but appeared at random in quiet island coves, and frequented hidden caves beneath a restless sea. I thought about his flashing eyes and pale, delicate hands often. And when I heard the words of the Pet Shop Boys’ Village People cover ‘Go West’ that my Mom played during the evening aerobics classes she taught to tired-eyed housewives in a Mormon church hall, though I knew nothing then directly about gay kitsch or Utopias, about AIDS benefits and queer solidarity, I felt a thrill that others knew about Akroo-akree, that they sang its song of hope-and-sadness openly.
So when I got a fishing rod I suppose I thought some point had been reached, that I had perhaps graduated to the next reading level, that I was now equipped to engage in a new way with that the other world of the ocean. That new, more complex sentences were waiting to tug on a line, that I might at last pull up a Griffin from the waves – and feathers dripping, he would cock his head and steeple his long fingers together as he smiled his knowing, crooked smile at our long-expected reunion.
My cousins, who had lived their whole lives on a farm in the North East of the country, came to my hometown Durban to visit. We went to a pier one day to fish in the Indian Ocean. My uncle prepared and cast in my cousins’ lines for them. My Dad, a city-slicker academic-cum-TV personality stepped forward to do the honours for me. He pulled back his muscular arm and cast my line out to sea in a graceful arc. The line spooled out, and with it the entire rod. Perhaps underestimating the diminutive rod’s weight, or his own applied force, or maybe nervous under the gaze of in-laws, under the weight of competitive masculine display, my father had launched the whole pole into the sea. My Uncle spent the next half-hour or more trying to hook out the half submerged rod with his own line, to no avail. We could have got another rod, but I never did, and didn’t go fishing again.
The symbolic associations of fish and rods in Brokeback Mountain are pretty blatant. This post isn’t really for dwelling on the implications of my Dad throwing my own unrealized heterosexuality and hetero-patriarchal reproductivity like a javelin into the sea. It wasn’t really like that – it should be clear my fishing rod never meant those things anyway. Many things occur to me reflecting on these stories (that books as much as 90s pop can turn you gay, or how boyhood queer desires can be shaped by narratives of imperialist adventure, for example) but I realize one thing particularly strongly: in honour of Alma, Ennis, Jack, my Dad, Queer Pirates, Sea Witches, and unrealized dreams the world over, I would like to go fishing.
So, when the time is right, let me know, and we can get some rods and go on a fishing trip that will hopefully involve love and sodomy AND actual fishing but still make everybody happy.
* After doing a little Googling I found the above picture of the Blue Pirate. Turns out his name was Ben. Go figure. The book series was written by one Sheila K. McCullagh. You can read more about her here. It seems as though the book series was later re-issued with horrible cartoon art, which I expect would have never caught my imagination like the luminous brushwork of the original paintings did.