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.

“I am not done with my changes”

Good grief. I can’t believe I’m starting one of these things.

To be honest, I’ve flirted with the idea for the past few years but always managed to dart out of the Internet’s grasp, preferring to observe rather than participate, to fill my RSS feeder with other people’s words rather than take the time to construct my own.  Laziness, yes. But because I have always dreamed of a future that will thrive off the written page, I realize that a large part of my reluctance to join the webby masses also has to do with fear. The Internet is changing the way we write, the way we read, and the way we shape a story for the better and for the worse, and as someone who grew up with her nose pressed into the pages of library books and inky newspapers, the change is a little frightening. But I’m making my peace with this new fangled business once and for all.  Or at least for now.

Those of you who are acquainted with me know that I love to talk, to tell stories, to engage in long conversations. But I tend to quietly store away many of my daily thoughts and observations into the creaky card catalogs of my memory or, if I’m feeling ambitious, maybe jot down some inscrutable phrases in the margins of a notebook.  This blog is really a personal challenge to open up the perpetual dialogue I have with myself and construct something coherent and maybe even interesting on the virtual pages before me.

Ok, enough of that.

The first month of this blog is going to be devoted to something that I feel very strongly about: poetry. April is National Poetry Month and each day, I will be posting a poem that strikes me in some way. Old favorites, new discoveries, famous, obscure, short, long.  I have more to say about this, but I am tired right now so I will spare you my fatigued rambling and leave you with the first poem by Stanley Kunitz, a former US Poet Laureate and prolific American poet who died at the age of 100  (!) only three years ago. I seem to come across this poem at least once a year in some place or another and it never fails to move me. “Live in the layers.”  What a wise piece of advice from the nimbus-clouded voice. And that last line is perfect.

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.