‘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.

Desire Desire Desire

Just happened across a Stanley Kunitz poem in my email inbox before heading off for bed late on a Saturday night with nothing to offer to the world outside these walls. An excerpt:

“… Outdoors all afternoon

under a gunmetal sky

staking my garden down,

I kneeled to the crickets trilling

underfoot as if about

to burst from their crusty shells;

and like a child again

marveled to hear so clear

and brave a music pour

from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done. …”

A poem’s magic: to take me outside these walls, to put me in a Massachusetts garden hearing the crickets.

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.

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.