“Salmon Eggs” is the closing poem of Hughes’s collection River (1983). The collection itself is a sequence of forty-three poems offering both description of river life and meditations on the spiritual and physical ecology. “Salmon Eggs,” as the final poem, offers an affirmation: “Only birth matters/ Say the river’s whorls.”
There are two movements in the poem. One is the horizontal flow of the river, its journey downstream, oceanward, toward conclusion and, implicitly, extinction. The other movement is vertical, from the sky, penetrating the water’s surface, probing the sediments. The poet occupies the intersection of these two movements and travels their axis. The poem opens in the past tense, suggesting that had the reader arrived sooner he or she, too, would have seen the salmon. The second stanza, cast in the present moment, gives witness to the salmon’s fatal exhaustion after spawning. Throughout the poem, there are images of fertility and birth, as well as exhaustion and extinction. These two conditions are never isolated; one always informs the other. For Hughes, the essential role of the poet is to be at the intersection of these movements, to witness and record them.
“Salmon Eggs” continues with the poet or speaker describing his reverie: “I lean and watch the water/ listening to water/ Till my eyes forget me/ And the piled flow supplants me.” Rather than the incantatory archaic and totemic being...
(The entire section is 479 words.)