Issue 5,  Poetry

My Daughters Question the Story of The Fisher King by Devon Miller-Duggan

But did the healed King then die in peace? 
Was the land a woman upon whom he forced himself, going unbidden into the forest?
Having found the comfort of the water, why return to land
Why did the Grail not heal land and King by being there?
And if the King made himself a fool—only ever traveling between anguish and comfort, 
how did an innocent, a purity, an idiot, a pilgrim
stumble on the healing question while searching for the Grail?  

Imagine him prince-born where sun, seasons, and stones 
still speak precisely to each other once each year, summoning 
the dead from their mingled ashes in basins on the passage floor, 
awaiting the birth of light in the death of the year.

Imagine him young, spoiled-sure the land was his to feed upon.
Imagine him question-consumed, even as he ate and ate, feeding lengthening bones: 

Why the ashen dead must wait upon the solstice, why the year’s wealth and victories 
depend on the solstice call? Why he had to wait for ripeness to husband the land? 

Imagine him pushing his unreliable voice?
Denied, he will have taken his new hungers away to the forest and fishing.  
Perhaps he let himself know which salmon he sought.

How the Salmon of Wisdom rose to the prince’s hook, why it chose
that hook, that youth, we will never know. 
But the Salmon surely came willing, knowing all that would follow:  
How the boy’s hands would shiver around the gutting knife, 
how the first cut would teach the fish shards of knowledge she had not owned—
how it felt to cross the planes, to watch her own life slip from her own belly,
how impatience made the youth pull her flesh from the fire and bite too soon, 
how his seared hands would drop the burning fish between his gangling legs, 
the silvery fishskin would singe his thighs, bones pierce the groin. 
How he’d try to touch his scalded groin with his scalded hands until at last he’d sleep.
How, waking, he’d eat the cold fish, too hungry to refuse even dangerous food.
How knowledge the fish’s flesh still bore would ride the youth’s throat
making him cry out again.

How, having returned to his father’s hall he will have found his father 
dead, laid on the pyre before the great passage mound.

How he will have turned from his father’s body in fire,
set himself free of land in a round boat all the week of his father’s rites,
believing the ease water offered his wound would continue on land 

Imagine he knew his father died at the moment his knife slid into the fish’s belly. 
Imagine he returned to land and slew the chief priest, who might have known words to heal. 

For decades, then, the wound wept and opened, wept and opened,
the king throbbing awake each morning, aching to sleep each night, 
at ease only on living water while every winter solstice clouded over, 
and the ashes of the dead remained unblessed. 
While sun burnt savagely the land, while a new god came.

Knowing he desired nothing beyond his small boat and the river, 
children of the new god gave their treasures into the keeping of the fishing King,
Perhaps they believed he might recognize their god, signed Fish.

This much of the story I can understand—
a boy impatient for power over something.
I even understand the mysterious processions some versions mention, 
Grail and Instruments borne through the castle by glowing, singing almost-humans—
such gifts demand their rituals.

I understand versions where the castle weird-folk banquet lavishly, magically 
every night while the starving, bleeding King watches—
pain separates the pained. 
But why the versions where the fool heals the King
with the simple gift of quenching simple thirst? Why could he not drink from the river
and heal himself? 

The King, being mostly human, could not heal himself. 
The land, being the body of the King, could not heal itself. 
The Grail, having touched the lips of God, could no longer be a cup. 
The Salmon, knowing the fading away of old gods, would not choose to save herself. 
The fool, consumed by his own parching, knew only to ask about thirst. 
As men tell the story, of course the Fool is a man— 
knight, squire, pilgrim, priest—always a near-grown man. 


Devon Miller-Duggan has published poems in Rattle, MargieChristianity and Literature, Gargoyle, Massachusetts Review, and Spillway.  She teaches Poetry Writing at the University of Delaware. Her books include Pinning the Bird to the Wall (Tres Chicas Books, 2008), Alphabet Year, (Wipf & Stock, 2017), The Slow Salute, Lithic Press Chaboook Competition, 2018).

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