Fisher King

Just because I’m king, is that any reason
Not to sit on the riverbank and cast my line?
Not to catch the breath of air that moves on the water?
Not to watch the fly drift and float and
Was that a tug? Was that — no.

Just because I’m king is that any reason
Why I should not sit on this margin
In the parching heat, and feel the air move,
The rod quivering in my hand
And my leg (oh God my leg) propped at the best angle
Where the pain is a muted roar
As the line drifts, and there is always the hope
Of a bite, a tug, the battle between man and fish,
And dinner at the end of the day.

Hunting, they say, hawking, these are the sport of kings.
It was hunting killed my brother, I say,
Have you forgotten? I haven’t.
Four days it took him to die,
Raving on the last of them
Cursing me, cursing the boar that ripped him,
The dark forest, the white hind,
His poor queen, his dead daughter.
Are you happy? he asked, his wild eyes glaring at me,
Now I am as useless as you?
Dashing away the poppyjuice, then later,
Begging for it, his eyes bulging.
We all come to it in the end.

Sitting here in the shade,
On this brink, this border,
Winding in the line,
Casting it out,
Letting it drift, and fall,
There are bubbles on the surface
And trout far down beneath it,
Who might rise for a fly,
And even if not the wind moves on my face,
Time enough to hobble home when the light goes,
Limp through the trees and imagine
I see her glimmering between the boles,
Jess, my Jessie, my lost one,
Dappled among the silver birches,
Jess, the only one who understood.

My leg feels like it’s on fire.
Like hot lead runs in my veins.
And that’s when I’m sitting still!
When I step it’s like being stabbed
With hot knives,
Like rusted metal grinding, grating,
And stairs
Vanquish me entirely.
I had them carry me into the throne room last time.
One more loss in the long defeat.

How seldom they ask me how it feels these days,
Maybe I bit their heads off when they did,
Maybe they learned to let me alone.
Anyway the words don’t mean much,
Throbbing, stabbing, aching,
Chronic, cthonic, autochthonous —
Was that a twitch, a nibble?
Let the rod rest easy, easy, not too eager —
No, no, nothing, let the fly drift back.

Not so much water as there should be,
Dark green-gold in rounded ripples,
Like her hair, Jess’s hair, finger curls,
As if the nereids had curled the river
Between their long fingers,
But always running on
From high in the mountains
Until it finds the confluence
And after that the sea,
The limit of the land,
Flow river, go ripples,
Bring what healing you can.
Because I am king I cannot go with you.

When she told me I was appalled of course.
I tried at once to palm it off on my cousin,
But he wasn’t having it.
Nor were the merchant guilds interested
In setting up a republic.
No, I was stuck with it,
Or rather it was stuck with me,
Stuck to me, we were stuck together,
The kingdom and I,
This pain in my leg the tangible sign
Of the sickness of the land,
The soil turning sour, drying up,
The blight on the crops,
The murrain among the stock,
King and land, feedback echoing.

Oh Jess, my Jess,
Off she went questing
Like all the knights before her,
So brave, with her bobbed hair,
Her long grey cardigan, her pearl beads,
Setting off west across the wilderness,
In search of the Chapel Perilous,
Leaving me desolate here
My counsellors nagging me to marry,
To stop going fishing, to confine myself
In the stifling palace,
In pain, lonely, with nothing to do but brood
Though they would bid me work
There is no such spirit in me.

Although I am a king, I am better here.
I twitch the rod and dance the fly,
And bubbles rise, rise, but nothing bites.
The shadowed water is dark green
The sunlit water is dark gold
And there is weed that drifts, and rocks
That break the water white, and far away
There is the confluence and the sea.
My leg is propped where the pain
Reminds me it is agony to move,
But I do not move.

Sometimes I dream that I should catch a trout
Whip it out through the air
In a strong smooth arc
Silver scales glimmering
Gasping in the alien element
And as I land it here beside me on the moss
It would transform upon that instant
Into my wise lost Jess,
Found, safe, returned, and she would call my name
And cool water would run down my parched throat
And then the rains would come.

15th December 2023

Note: Jessie Weston’s scholarly work on the grail quest From Ritual to Romance (1920) was cited by T.S. Eliot in the notes to The Waste Land (1922) and he called her “Miss Jessie Weston” and nothing about that says she was herself either a grail maiden or a grail knight but yet.