Saturday Poem: King of the River

By Stanley Kunitz. Illustration by Miki Lowe at The Atlantic

If the water were clear enough,
if the water were still,
but the water is not clear,
the water is not still,
you would see yourself,
slipped out of your skin,
nosing upstream,
slapping, thrashing,
over the rocks
till you paint them
with your belly’s blood:
Finned Ego,
yard of muscle that coils,

If the knowledge were given you,
but it is not given,
for the membrane is clouded
with self-deceptions
and the iridescent image swims
through a mirror that flows,
you would surprise yourself
in that other flesh
heavy with milt,
bruised, battering toward the dam
that lips the orgiastic pool.

Come. Bathe in these waters.
Increase and die.

If the power were granted you
to break out of your cells,
but the imagination fails
and the doors of the senses close
on the child within,
you would dare to be changed,
as you are changing now,
into the shape you dread
beyond the merely human.
A dry fire eats you.
Fat drips from your bones.
The flutes of your gills discolor.
You have become a ship for parasites.
The great clock of your life
is slowing down,
and the small clocks run wild.
For this you were born.
You have cried to the wind
and heard the wind’s reply:
“I did not choose the way,
the way chose me.”
You have tasted the fire on your tongue
till it is swollen black
with a prophetic joy:
“Burn with me!
The only music is time,
the only dance is love.”

If the heart were pure enough,
but it is not pure,
you would admit
that nothing compels you
any more, nothing
at all abides,
but nostalgia and desire,
the two-way ladder
between heaven and hell.
On the threshold
of the last mystery,
at the brute absolute hour,
you have looked into the eyes
of your creature self,
which are glazed with madness,
and you say
he is not broken but endures,
limber and firm
in the state of his shining,
forever inheriting his salt kingdom,
from which he is banished

The poet Stanley Kunitz was reading Time magazine, he recalled in 1982, when something caught his eye: an article about Pacific salmon. The creature’s life cycle is nothing short of dramatic. After being born in the fresh water of a river, a young fish migrates into the ocean, where it lives most of its adult life. But eventually, ready to lay eggs of its own, it journeys upstream to return to its birthplace. Once it arrives, having fought against currents and traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, it spawns—and then dies. This story stuck with Kunitz. He’d long been preoccupied with mortality, how inseparable it was from the rest of existence. “The deepest thing I know,” he said at one point, “is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that dialogue.” The Pacific salmon, then, was a perfect symbol for him to use in his work. It represents the tragic beauty—or perhaps futility—of struggling toward death’s inevitable end. More here.

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