In Passing

Stanley Kunitz, the poet, died the other day. He was 100. I’m not sure I can hear so well above the general static of life and lesser news, but he seems to have passed with hardly a sound beyond standard obituary treatments. He was not a contestant on “Idol,” a singer on the wrong side of the law, a president of the United States, a ballplayer, a fallen corporate chieftain, the architect of a policy condoning torture, a movie actor or director, a NASCAR legend, a pioneer of the Motown sound, a pitchman, the winner of a million bucks, or a suspect in a sensational crime. Not that this is a lament for unsung poets. If some network put a prime-time poet drama or sitcom on the tube, I know where I’d be: Watching “24” and “Survivor” and reruns of “L&O.” I probably wouldn’t know or care much about the poet’s TV adventures. And the real-life poets? They’d still be unknown, mostly, their voices too soft to hear.

But what voices, what profound voices, full of rain, sun and sane consideration of our condition. I wasn’t aware of Kunitz until he was 95, when he published a new collections of poems. He got a flurry of attention in poet-friendly mass media: public radio and public television (for instance, “Fooling with Words,” with Bill Moyers). I believe that on one of his appearances, someone had him read a poem he’d written when Halley’s Comet crossed our sky for the second time in his lifetime:

“Halley’s Comet”

Miss Murphy in first grade

wrote its name in chalk

across the board and told us

it was roaring down the stormtracks

of the Milky Way at frightful speed

and if it wandered off its course

and smashed into the earth

there’d be no school tomorrow.

A red-bearded preacher from the hills

with a wild look in his eyes

stood in the public square

at the playground’s edge

proclaiming he was sent by God

to save every one of us,

even the little children.

“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,

waving his hand-lettered sign.

At supper I felt sad to think

that it was probably

the last meal I’d share

with my mother and my sisters;

but I felt excited too

and scarcely touched my plate.

So mother scolded me

and sent me early to my room.

The whole family’s asleep

except for me. They never heard me steal

into the stairwell hall and climb

the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof

of the red brick building

at the foot of Green Street —

that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.

I’m the boy in the white flannel gown

sprawled on this coarse gravel bed

searching the starry sky,

waiting for the world to end.

2 Replies to “In Passing”

  1. I read all your entries, even if I don’t comment. This is a good one, pointing out that there is a fabric that lies below all the day to day cable tv, media shite which clutters up life. There are a lot people out there doing this kind of work. Artists, musicians, poets who we can learn a lot from.
    When I was in Australia, I used to go into the woods and just sit “looking at it all.” At first, it seemed as though nothing much was happening, but if I sat perfectly still, I could see that everything, “the picture” was in motion. I only had to stop–to see it.
    That is what comes to mind when I read this poem. It is one those pictures which you have to stare at for a moment before you see the motion. I also think of this guy, living in a red brick building on Green St. and wonder if he had a connection to Brooklyn. Sean and I have gone on the roof of our red brick building in Brooklyn many times to look at planes, planets, constellations and across the river to Gotham.

  2. One of my favorite lines from any movie is in that David Lynch movie, “The Straight Story” — the tale of the guy who made a road trip on a lawn mower. At one point, the beautifully expressive Richard Farnsworth tells a tragic story from his days as a World War II sniper in France. He talked about the watchfulness that duty entailed: “They’d post me up front, damn near ahead of the line. I’d sit still forever. Amazin’ thing what you can see just sittin’.”
    When I ride, it frequently strikes me what I’m missing as I roll through the landscape. I love to just stop and listen to the countryside sometimes — so much there.

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