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King of the River -- Stanley Kunitz

Guest poem submitted by Sandra Scott:
(Poem #501) King of the River
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,
tumbling
over the rocks
till you paint them
with your belly's blood:
Finned Ego,
yard of muscle that coils,
uncoils.
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
forever.
-- Stanley Kunitz
I first heard a recording of this poem read by Kunitz himself and at the time
didn't know what I was listening to - neither the title nor the author nor
really what it meant, but the powerful images stuck in my head.  The next day I
was leisurely browsing through poetry books at the bookstore and picked up one
by an unknown author because the title and cover looked interested...  I let it
fall open and on the page in front of me was that poem!

That amazing coincidence in itself is enough to endear King of the River to me
forever, but the reason this poem is really a favorite is (a) the way it gets
richer with each read, (b) the way the images are painted with such a visceral
strength and (c) the content, which, sure enough, speaks to an area close to
home... It's like this poem was meant for me to discover:  I'm a medical student
and every day in the hospital I witness displays of strength from patients who
are near the end, mustering all remaining energy to continue to fight upstream
through physical and mental decline.  Kunitz's depiction of the unseen glory,
triumph and destiny of that final fight is unforgettable.

Sandy.

[Bio]

Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905. His ten books of
poetry include Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (W. W. Norton,
1995), which won the  National Book Award; Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and
Essays (1985); The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978, which won the Lenore
Marshall Poetry Prize; Passport to the War (1940);Selected Poems, 1928-1958,
which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Testing-Tree (1971); and
Intellectual Things (1930). He also co-translated Orchard Lamps by Ivan Drach
(1978), Story Under Full Sail by Andrei Voznesensky (1974), and Poems of
Akhmatova (1973), and edited The Essential Blake (1987), Poems of John Keats
(1964), and The Yale Series of Younger Poets (1969-77).

        -- www.poets.org

10 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Nancy Bell said...

When I first discovered this poem (I heard the famous recording of the poet
reading it) I walked around repeating those first few lines in my
head:"...but the water is not clear/the water is not still." It certainly
was for Kunitz when he wrote this poem. Savage, clear-eyed, compassionate.
Love it.

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Excellent poem thanks, It remembers me when I was depress when... something happend, but now i feel very happy because I can even mencioned without getting sad.

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