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.


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