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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Layers - 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 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.


I feel like here, Kunitz (a Worcester native!) explores a few issues we all confront now and again, mostly dealing with questions of self-identity.  The paradox of looking back at the past and seeing the mark of otherness on your past self, yet knowing that it is still you is confusing.  "I am not who I was" is a sentiment we have probably all shared at some point.  Certainly, I'm a very different person than I was five years ago, but I am still "me" whatever that means.  I think that's what Kunitz means by "some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray."

Life as a straight line, dotted with the refuse and remnants, "campsites" of our former selves is a striking image.  When Kunitz says he sees "milestones dwindling towards the horizon" I am not sure if he is looking forward or backwards, but I little think it matters.  The lines, "How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?" stands out to me for its directness.  Also, we generally view loss as the removal of something, so to imagine our heart feasting on our losses is a reversal from the usual.  In a way, it's very true to my experience.  We brood on our losses and heartbreaks, we stew in them.  Feast sounds accurate.

Kunitz goes on, though, to answer how it is we reconcile our heart to that feast.  We turn, and somehow maintain our "will intact to go wherever I need to go" keeping the world sacred.  "Every stone on the road precious to me" is the right way to view a journey, with wonder and renewed vigor.  A spectral voice, a whisper on the clouds, advises Kunitz to not live in the litter.  Though somewhat fatalistic, Kunitz knows that there will be more changes to his life.  It's uplifting to know that we are not done with our changes.

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