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.
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