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.
In “King of the River,” Kunitz makes room for both interpretations. Aging and nearing your demise, he suggests, isn’t pretty: “The flutes of your gills discolor. / You have become a ship for parasites. / The great clock of your life / is slowing down.” And with time slipping away, one’s limitations are painful. When he starts a sentence with if, the possibility is immediately dashed by a but: “If the water were clear enough … but the water is not clear,” he writes. “If the knowledge were given you, / but it is not given.” The life of a fish, like the life of a human, is full of constraints, defeats, and humiliations.
And yet, the species—and the world—continues on. Indeed, Kunitz ends on a hopeful note: The dying salmon, though banished from the kingdom of life, has nevertheless played a grand role in it. Perhaps Kunitz was reassuring himself—or, at the very least, reminding himself that the burden of mortality isn’t humankind’s alone.
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