The Way of Grief

Today, this poem by Stanley Kunitz, great poet who lived in Provincetown where I once spent a magical year.

It says everything I cannot say about grief.

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,


over the rocks

till you paint them

with your belly’s blood:

Finned Ego,

yard of muscle that coils,


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


2 responses to “The Way of Grief

  1. Odd thing, Emily. This poem and what I’m trying to write about (a Dostoevsky article) meet. As does the Ziusidra citation about fate being a wet bank you slip on. I’ve cited your blog in a footnote…

  2. Alma Luz Villanueva

    “the only music is time,/the only dance is love’…that reprieve from grief, what a wonderful poem, what a human journey.
    This is from one of my first poems over thirty years ago, ‘Night Dance’-
    “Fear, fear: listen:/love is the dance,/the spinning harp.”
    *At the end of my new book, ‘Soft Chaos’…poetry always connects, gracias for posting as you swim.

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