The Layers

May 26, 2006 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment

Stanley Kunitz


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 strenth
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.

Say what you will about Kunitz, he is the possessor of a truly exceptional ear. He has the fastidious and hypnotic ability to pick the precise words ("scavenger angels", "nimbus-clouded voice") that will both enhance the image and round out the sound. He is also, as this poem makes apparent, a proficient phrase maker – capable of delivering lines that are as radiant and as perfect as tiny gems set in a larger ornament. The repetition, of "I turn, I turn", for instance, or the delightful comeback of that second line ("some of them mine"), or that glorious question placed strategically in the very centre of the poem ("How shall the heart be reconciled / To its feast of losses?").

If there is one difficulty I have with Kunitz, it's that his poetry tends to get too fussy for my taste, too overwrought. That, fortunately, does not happen here – this poem has the true simplicity of the spoken voice, as practically all of Kunitz's better poems do. It is a lovely poem, a joy to read aloud, and a fitting tribute to one of our oldest and most venerable bards, a man who lived through many, many changes, and now, at the age of 100, is finally done.

Stanley Kunitz died last week (May 14th). My post on his death can be found here. Some biographical information can be found here. See another fine poem by Kunitz on Minstrels


Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Stanley Kunitz.

Jabberwocky Spanish Dancer

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