Poetry: "King of the River" by Stanley Kunitz

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originally published in the July 1970 Atlantic


Audio: Hear Stanley Kunitz read "King of the River", recorded in 1995. (3:39)

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."


From the archive:
A Visionary Poet at Ninety by David Barber, June 1996 Atlantic

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 (1905-2006) was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard. His first collection of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930. His later books include The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (2000) and Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (1995), which received the National Book Award. He was named US Poet Laureate in 2000.

Copyright © 1995 by Stanley Kunitz. Used by permission. As published in Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (W. W. Norton, 1995). Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1970.

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