Last spring someone in one of my classes handed me a fragment of Stanley Kunitz’s marvelous poem, The Layers. That’s how I discovered Stanley Kunitz.
Don’t get me wrong — I had his book of collected poems on my shelf for a few years. It was a Christmas gift that I had opened on Christmas morning a few years ago, and I’m sure, when I unwrapped it, I said some version of, ‘Just what I wanted!’ I read some of the poems that afternoon, highlighting a couple; then I put the book on the shelf in my home library – you know the shelf I mean; it’s the one filled with good intentions; it says, ‘books to be read.’
Some time later someone handed me a scrap of paper torn from a small pocket notebook with very legible writing that said, “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was…I am not done with my changes.”
I savored that passage, and saved it in my class notes. Then, a short time later the poem fragment fit perfectly into a sermon. The following Monday morning Ed gave me a copy of the complete poem, which I had not read in its entirety. Now, listen to it again, and see if you hear something new:
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,
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
“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.
With that poem I discovered Stanley Kunitz, so I took his collected poems down from the silent shelf-of-good-intentions. I read his marvelous two-page reflection on poetry, where he says, in part:
“Years ago I came to the realization that the most poignant of all lyric tensions stems from the awareness that we are living and dying at once. To embrace such knowledge and yet to remain compassionate and whole—that is the consummation of the endeavor of art.
“At the core of one’s existence is a pool of energy that has nothing to do with personal identity, but that falls away from self, blends into the natural universe. Man has only a bit part to play in the whole marvelous show of creation.
“Poems would be easy if our heads weren’t so full of the day’s clatter. The task is to get through to the other side, where we can hear the deep rhythms that connect us with the stars and the tides.”
“…poems…are at best a diminished echo of a song that maybe once or twice in a lifetime we’ve heard and keep trying to recall.”
“I like to think that it is the poet’s love of particulars, the things of this world, that leads him to universals.”
“We have all been expelled from the Garden, but the ones who suffer most in exile are those who are still permitted to dream of perfection.”
“Sometimes I feel ashamed that I’ve written so few poems on political themes, on the causes that agitate me. But then I remind myself that to choose to live as a poet in the modern superstate is in itself a political action.”
“I want to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare. I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world.”
Browsing in Barnes and Noble one day this summer I discovered The Wild Braid; a collection of conversations between Stanley Kunitz and Genine Lentine. The subtitle of The Wild Braid is ‘a poet reflects on a century in the garden.’
Kunitz was born on July 29, 1905. He died on May 14, 2006, two months shy of 101. The conversations between Kunitz and Lentine took place between his 97th and 100th birthdays. Lentine says, “Our talks occurred on daily rounds in Stanley’s seaside garden in Provincetown…and in his New York study.” She says, “The theme of regeneration was central to our discussions during those months.”
The theme of gardening is woven throughout the book; the heart of the conversations is the relationship between gardening and poetry; he spent a good portion of his long life in that garden, but he also uses the garden as a metaphor: “We have all been expelled from the Garden,” he says, capitalizing the word Garden to refer to the Biblical creation myth in Genesis.
At one point Lentine asks the poet, “Why is the act of cultivating so compelling?”
He responds: “All my life, the garden has been a great teacher in everything I cherish. As a child, I dreamed of a world that was loving, that was open to all kinds of experience, where there was no prejudice, no hatred, no fear. The garden was a world that depended on care and nourishment. And it was an interplay of forces as much as I responded to the garden, the garden, in turn, responded to my touch, my presence.”
“The garden isn’t, at its best, designed for admiration or praise; it leads to an appreciation of the natural universe, and to a meditation on the connection between the self and the rest of the natural universe.”
“…The garden is a domestication of the wild.”
“I think of gardening as an extension of one’s own being, something as deeply personal and intimate as writing a poem…The garden is, in a sense, the cosmos in miniature…”
“You might say, as well, that the garden is a metaphor for the poems you write in a lifetime and give to the world in the hope that these poems you have lived through will be will be equivalent to the flower that takes root in the soil and becomes part of the landscape. If you’re lucky, that happens with some of the poems you create, while others pass the way of so many plants you set into the garden, or grow from seed: they emerge and give pleasure for a season and then vanish.”
Kunitz talks about his first job for pay; at age nine he became a lamplighter in the small village of Quinnapoxet in central Massachusetts. At first, he says, he was a helper on the lamplighter’s buggy, pulled by a horse named Prince; but soon he was trusted to light the twenty or so lamps on his own—with Prince leading the way, since the horse knew the route by heart. Kunitz writes:
“It gave me the feeling that I was really a man—my first job. The first lesson I learned was to listen to Prince. He was my mentor. I needed no map, relying on his knowledge, on all he has learned as part of his ministry. There were about twenty lamps and I went out every night as twilight was falling. It took me about an hour and a half to travel the whole route and come back.
“My job as lamplighter gave me a completely different sense of function. I was a public person—at age nine! But I never thought of myself as being just nine years old.”
In a poem he titled Lamplighter, he says:
Once I was a lamplighter
on the Quinnapoxet roads,
making the rounds with Prince,
who was older than I and knew
by heart each of our stations,
needing no whoa of command
nor a tug at his bridle.
That was the summer I practiced
sleight-of-hand and fell asleep
over my picture-books of magic.
Toward dusk, at crossings
and at farmhouse gates,
under the solitary iron trees
I stood on the rim of the buggy wheel
and raised my enchanter’s wand,
with its tip of orange flame,
to the gas mantles in their cages,
touching them, one by one,
till the whole countryside bloomed.
Kunitz talks about his time alone, as a child, saying he spent a lot of time ‘haunting the woods.’ He made an intimate connection to the natural world, practicing new words he discovered as he explored his unabridged dictionary, a book he felt privileged to have in his childhood house; his two loves, all his life, were nature and language…words.
He had a challenging childhood. He never met his father and was told nothing about him when he was growing up, since his mother never forgave his father for killing himself a few months before Kunitz was born. He explains it in a poem he called, The Portrait:
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
His poems allow him to walk and talk his way through ‘many lives,’ some of them his own.
Eventually his mother remarried, bringing some temporary joy into an otherwise difficult childhood. He says,
“Toward the end of my summer in Quinnapoxet, my mother married again. Mark Dine, my new father, had a dignity about him that was impressive to me, and great kindness and gentleness. The whole climate of the household changed when she brought in this beautiful man, whose love, above all, saved me from bitterness, which in the end would have destroyed me creatively.
He says, “During the holiday season of 1918 I had gone to stay with his son Mitchell in Cambridge. One night there was a big demonstration in the streets below the apartment, with fireworks going off until late in the evening, and I had finally fallen asleep well after midnight. Around 3 A.M. the phone rang. I heard Mitchell pick it up and new immediately something tragic had happened. Mark, my new father, had died of a heart attack.”
His early life is like a Shakespearian tragedy, or a Job-like Biblical story.
Poetry became his therapy. He said, “One of the great delights of poetry is that when you’re really functioning, you’re tapping the unconscious in a way that is distinct from the ordinary, the customary, use of the mind in daily life. You’re somehow cracking the shell separating you from the unknown.”
How do you ‘crack the shell that separates you from the unknown?’ That’s the religious task, the essence of what we call our spirituality. We know we are separate, and sometimes we feel the sting of separation – the pain of rejection, like the slap-in-the-face sting he felt at age 64, still burning.
But we sense, on a different level, a deeper level, a sense of our connection to another person, to a group of people, a family, a congregation, and the brokenness is healed; connections make us whole, again.
The level I’m referring to is not an intellectual; it’s not rational. It’s intuitive. It’s in the same category as music, poetry and prayer; it’s what the autumn leaves are about right now in this season of transformation.
The title, “The Wild Braid,” refers to the intertwining of snakes and tree roots described in the poem “The Snakes of September,” which I’ll read. But the phrase could also refer to the intertwining of poetry and gardening, pointing to our intimate relationship to nature
All summer I heard them
rustling in the shrubbery,
outracing me from tier
to tier in my garden,
a whisper among the viburnums,
a signal flashed from the hedgerow,
a shadow pulsing
in the barberry thicket.
Now that the nights are chill
and the annuals spent,
I should have thought them gone,
in a torpor of blood
slipped to the nether world
before the sickle frost.
Not so. In the deceptive balm
of noon, as if defiant of the curse
that spoiled another garden,
these two appear on show
through a narrow slit
in the dense green brocade
of a north-country spruce,
dangling head-down, entwined
in a brazen love-knot.
I put out my hand and stroke
the fine, dry grit of their skins.
we are partners in this land,
co-signers of a covenant.
At my touch the wild
braid of creation
George Burns said that “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.”
To keep the end and beginning ‘as close as possible I have just two more things: First a passage fr-m The Wild Braid that I read at our staff meeting a couple of weeks ago. It’s about gardening as metaphor and summarizes ‘the gardening’ that we, as your staff, are here to do. Kunitz says, “The main obligations of the gardener are to be mindful of the garden’s needs and to be observant each day of what is going on in the garden. And it compels you to structure you life because there are things you have to do at certain times.
“There is very little fundamental change in the garden fr-m year to year now; it’s really a question of preventing the garden fr-m smothering itself, of selectivity, of moving a plant that doesn’t seem quite right in its place. Some things get overgrown, or die fr-m a hard freeze, or a plant shades out one next to it—these things are ongoing and you have to respond to them as they happen. And the garden is not deceptive. The garden lets you know.”
We hope to be mindful of your needs…to be observant of what’s going on each day and to be ready to respond.
We hope to avoid having folks ‘die fr-m a hard freeze.’ We take pride in our warmth, but fr-m time to time someone feels ‘frozen out.’ You are part of this garden and you have to ‘let us know.’
I’ll close with some concluding lines frm The Wild Braid, fr-m Kunitz’s poem, The Round:
“Light splashed this morning
On the shell-pink anemones
Swaying on their tall stems…
This morning I saw light kiss
The silk of the roses
In their second flowering,
My late bloomers…
A curious gladness shook me.
“I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
When a new life begins for me,
As it does each day,
As it does each day.”