“Burn with me!” (King of The River #2)

The “right” poem (right being right for you, your distinctive antidote, your self-cure) will often take you places you might not want to go.

I did not want to spend over a month committing Kunitz’s poem to memory. I wanted my by-heart “possession” of the poem to be swift, fluent, uncomplicated. I would apply effort, link-begetting intelligence, creative-visualisations, whatever it took to get the poem into the spawn pool of my heart where it might swim around with all the others I’ve caught so far in this way.

Hear that?

That is the sound of Stanley Kunitz chuckling. That is the sound of Stanley Kunitz saying: “The Sockeye salmon from central Idaho travels over 900 miles, climbing nearly 7,000 feet in order to return from the Pacific Ocean to the freshwater lakes of its birth, so that it may reproduce, and you want to consume this journey like you might consume a chunk of flesh hacked off the body of this creature? In what? An hour, a day, a week? Instantaneously?!”

I’m not sure if Kunitz was a cusser, but if he had been, I imagine him finishing his hard-nosed but good-humoured observation with “…for chrissakes, Steve, is that really the deal here? Jesus Christ!”

Each section of Kunitz’s poem is built around an uncomfortable truth, a truth we all struggle with: that things are not as they should be, that life bears no responsibility in providing us with the ideal. If A were clear enough, if B were still; if C was given to me; if D was granted; if E were pure enough.

But (alas): A is not clear, B is not still, C is not given, D fails us; E is not pure.

What do we do with all these (k)nots?

The poem was one giant (k)not: no matter how hard I tried, it just didn’t want to swim into my head. I would spend hours memorising – even just ten or twelve lines, a few hundred slippery word fish, which before I knew it, had slapped and thrashed and tumbled their way out of my memory again.  The process felt like snakes and ladders, but all snakes, no ladders. I worked hard at getting stuck into the poem, but all I did was get stuck in the poem. I couldn’t move forward at the pace I wanted, I needed, I’d hoped for.


I don’t know. Maybe just “because”.

Because this by-hearting process is not clear, not still, not given, often fails us; not pure. No, that’s not true, purity it has: the purity of utter bewilderment and incapacity.

So what did I do?

I continued.

In the words of Frank O’Hara:

the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do.

We know this, but then the next question is maybe why does one continue?

The answer to that question is I think deeply embedded in this poem. It has something to do with following one’s vital impulses, with passionate struggle, with  Csíkszentmihályian “flow“.

And a kind of faith too.

I knew I’d crack the poem if I just kept on returning to it again, and again, and again. Again (obdurately), again (tenderly), again (patiently).

The faith was also about knowing that the journey would be worth it.

It has been.

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