and every stone on the road precious to me

Hello again, readers. Sorry it’s been awhile. This first post of June also happens to be my 200th post on this humble poetry blog. So in honor of that nicely rounded, seemingly significant number, I thought I’d re-post the Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) poem that inspired the name of this blog in the first place.

I like to dig up this piece during turning points and find that each reading offers something new, a different layer if you will. Tonight, the poem’s nimbus-clouded voice reminds me of the difficulty, and the necessity, of living deeply–of moving forward while remaining anchored, of collecting each obstacle as a precious stone of experience, of loving people who are also perpetually changing…

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.

Whatever you choose to claim of me is always yours

A beautiful, honest love poem from Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006), whose work first inspired the name of my blog. Happy Valentine’s Day, readers.

Stanley Kunitz in backyard
Kunitz in his garden, photo by Marnie Crawford Samuelson

“Passing Through”

—on my seventy-ninth birthday

Nobody in the widow’s household
ever celebrated anniversaries.
In the secrecy of my room
I would not admit I cared
that my friends were given parties.
Before I left town for school
my birthday went up in smoke
in a fire at City Hall that gutted
the Department of Vital Statistics.
If it weren’t for a census report
of a five-year-old White Male
sharing my mother’s address
at the Green Street tenement in Worcester
I’d have no documentary proof
that I exist. You are the first,
my dear, to bully me
into these festive occasions.

Sometimes, you say, I wear
an abstracted look that drives you
up the wall, as though it signified
distress or disaffection.
Don’t take it so to heart.
Maybe I enjoy not-being as much
as being who I am. Maybe
it’s time for me to practice
growing old. The way I look
at it, I’m passing through a phase:
gradually I’m changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours;
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.

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.