How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?

For my 100th blog post and the last one of 2010, I thought I would revisit the first poem I shared on this site and the inspiration for its name. “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) speaks to a lifetime of turning points and the complicated emotions that accompany them. It is a poem to grow with, to help your heart reconcile to its feast of losses and to urge you to keep turning, keep growing.

And what a powerful directive from that nimbus-clouded voice: live in the layers. To me, it’s a two-fold reminder. The first: to live deeply and in the details rather than on the surface. The second: to remember that we, too, are composed of layers–of milestones and memory, of wreckage and tribes scattered. And grief-lined as those layers may be, they are each, like the stones the narrator of this poem finds along the road, precious to our transformations.

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.


You say you love the world, so love the world.

This new book of poetry from Ada Limón (1976) is definitely one of the best I’ve read all year. How to choose just one…

“The Same Thing”

There’s an awful story in the news.
For days you cannot sleep; it’s too hot, it’s too cold.

It’s just a story in the news.

Not another human, not a whole country,
not another animal, just a piece of paper.

Then you feel a little better.
You go to the train and wear your headphones,
you listen to a sad song that sounds familiar.

You pass a store window and there’s someone
you don’t know walking where you’re walking: heels,
a summer dress, hair tied up too fancy for the week.

The television says tomorrow night they will
shed some light on hell.

How far do we need to search for some bad thing?
Hell is not beneath us, not a bargaining chip with your children.

You come home on the train and you have
bought gifts and tried to be decent.

This is how your life will go, you know that. Day after day.

Awful acceptance: the soft life of your footprints.

You start to think of the alternative,
you shake your real shirt off in the hallway.

Would it be the same if you were born in Mexico? Life.
Cuba? Ireland? 1974?

You miss everyone. Even the people you read about today
you didn’t know, their faces on the brain as if on paper.

You sit on the balcony,
which is really a fire escape, but you call it
the balcony to make it sound better.
You wear the slip your grandmother gave you

fifteen years ago, the weather is nice, California nice.

You sing a little, call your family, you think, things aren’t so bad.

You say you love the world, so love the world.

Maybe you don’t even say it for yourself,
Maybe you move your mouth like everyone
moves their mouth. Maybe your mouth is the same
mouth as everyone’s, all trying to say the same thing.

it is the voice of a woman reading out loud

Am really digging Li Young Lee  (1957-) these days. I am intrigued by this somewhat surreal poem about language and relationships from his latest collection Behind My Eyes.

Li-Young Lee's Behind My Eyes

“Sweet Peace in Time”

I said, “What if by story you mean the shortcut home,
but I mean voices in a room by the sea
while days go by

She said,” Open, The Word is a child of eternity.
Closed, the Word is a child of Time.”

I said, “And what if by dream you mean to comb
the knots out of your hair,

to prune the orchard
and correct the fruit,

but I mean to travel
by rain crossing the sea, or apple blossoms
traversing a stone threshold
with a word carved into it:

She said, “Home, speech is the living purchase
of our nights and days.

A traveler, it is a voice in its own lifetime.

A river, it is Time sifted, Time manifest,
laughter that sires the rocks and trees,
that fetches in its ancient skirts
the fateful fruits and seeds.”

I said, “And what if when I say, Song,
you hear, A wing

executing boundary by sounding
the rage of its hunting

but I mean Time and the World
measured by a voice’s passage?

She said, “Empty, The Word is a wind in the trees.

Full it is the voice of a woman
reading out loud from a book of names.”

I said, “To speak is to err.
Words name nothing.
There are no words.”

She said, “Lure, slaughter, feast, blood
in the throat, words turn, changing.”

I said, “We should give up
trying to speak or to be understood.
It’s too late in the world for dialogue.

Death creates a blind spot.
Man is a secret, blind to himself.
And woman…Woman is…”

She said,” Our meeting here manifests
a primordial threshold.

A first and last place, speech
is no place at all, a shelter, ark, and cradle;

salt but not salt, bread but not bread,
a house but no house.”

I said, “The garden was ruined long before
we came to make a world of it.”