The Fisher King Retires
—for Robin Williams, Keith Emerson, and all the wounded men
The decades wear down on us, not even
water on stone but water on clay—
flexible as muscle, yet weak outside the kiln,
our love-hate dance with fire and ash.
The damaged Fisher King in his cryptic realm,
casting hooks through water’s portal
to the otherworld, the salmon of knowledge
elusive as mist, the healing boon unreachable.
Thought swims finned in its viscous element,
unaware of its ocean. Poison the well
and you poison the kingdom. Stab a man’s
thigh and slaughter his heart, abandon utterly
his future. Excalibur’s lake a mirror image
of courage—the sinew to slash or caress,
the gut’s viscera keeping soul and body united.
Send no soldier to war we won’t welcome home.
Some eyes can’t bear the gradual starvation
of light, the body’s dismantling, limb by limb,
ache by ache. Time’s milk sour, clouding the pool,
the half-self drifting away in tatters.
Align the mind’s lance with the heart’s cup
and crack the conundrum. Pour the Grail’s wine
over an open wound. Let the green wave
fill the land with blossoms.
At a time when women’s issues completely dominate media headlines, I wanted to shine a light on the seldom-discussed issue of male suicides. Comedian Robin Williams and musician Keith Emerson are only the tip of the iceberg, their fame making their suicides more noticeable than most. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men die by suicide 3.5 times more than women. Robin Williams died August 11, 2014 of suicide. His wife Susan Schneider attributed his suicide to his struggle with Lewy body dementia. Keith Emerson, composer and keyboardist for the progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer, committed suicide March 11, 2016. Emerson suffered from depression, and in his later years developed nerve damage that hampered his playing, making him anxious about upcoming performances.
By now the Fisher King or Wounded King story needs little explanation. And although the use of archetypal myths in contemporary poetry is considered something of a Romantic throwback, I fall in with Carl Jung’s school of thought, which sees archetypes as endlessly self-renewing in the psyche. In this case the metaphor—employed for two creative geniuses who committed suicide—felt entirely apt, since the Fisher King’s wound is typically in his thigh, a medieval metaphor for the male genitals. The loss of male procreative power is thus a fundamental blow to the male psyche, analogous to an artist losing (or perceiving the loss of) his creative powers. Men tend to define themselves by their work and accomplishments. For Williams and Emerson, the impending loss of their creative work was enough to precipitate suicide.