‘Those Who Fell Along the Way’

I heard the poet Stanley Kunitz read his poem “The Layers” on the PBS Newshour maybe ten years ago (here’s the transcript, which contains a link to streaming video; it’s worth a look for his explanation of the poem). I’ve been thinking on and off all day that this is August 29th, the anniversary of our mom’s death; and then I took a Kunitz collection down from my bookshelf and remembered this poem, a good one to read on a day when I’m reflecting on those who have gone before us.

The Layers
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp_sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

My Call to Stanley Kunitz

Yesterday, Stanley Kunitz was possibly the only 99-year-old former U.S. poet laureate with a listed phone number. That’s no longer true. He turned 100 today. I tried the number to see if it is really his. If someone had picked up, I was going to say “happy birthday” or “sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number” if my nerve failed me. But there was no answer. From the centenary stories I’ve seen, he spends his summers in Massashusetts.

Well, happy birthday, anyway. Honestly, I don’t know his work well and don’t think I’d ever read any of it before I heard him read a poem called “The Layers” when he was interviewed on the “NewsHour” a few years ago. What got my attention was how forceful this man of 95 sounded:

Q.: … You’ve said that a poem is present even before it’s written down.

Kunitz: Yes. I think a poem lies submerged in the depths of one’s being. It’s an amalgamation of images, often the key images out of a life. I think there are certain episodes in the life that really form a constellation, and that’s the germinal point of the poems. The poems, when they come with an incident from the immediate present, latch on to those images that are deep in one’s whole sensibility, and when that happens, everything starts firing at once.

Q.: And how have you kept in touch with that? How have you stayed so intellectually and physically vital all these years? You’ve been… you have a poem in this book that goes back to 1914. … How have you done that?

Kunitz: Because I haven’t dared to forget. I think it’s important for one’s survival to keep the richness of the life always there to be tapped. One doesn’t live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you became conscious.