Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Tuesday Poem - The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

                       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 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 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.

                       Stanley Kunitz.

". . . People who come to hear poetry are very generous. There's a curious relationship between the poet and his audience. Paul Celan, the great poet of the Holocaust, wrote cryptically that 'a poem is solitary and on its way.' In my interpretation, the poem is on its way in search of people. For its complete fulfillment it has to find an audience, it has to be invited into some other person's mind and heart. Once the poet lets go of his poem, it is no longer his. It belongs to anyone who wants it. It is a gift. . . 

. . . I wrote 'The layers' in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. . .  Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends, including Theodore Roethke, Mark Rothko, and - most recently - Robert Lowell. I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work. The poem began with two lines that came to me in a dream, spoken out of a dark cloud: 'Live in the layers,/not on the litter.'" Stanley Kunitz

excerpt from Fooling With Words - A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft by Bill Moyers: Perennial, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 1999 

For more Tuesday Poems, please click on the quill. 

Bernadette Keating is this week's TP editor with the poem Excerpt from 15 Flower World Variations by Jerome Rothenberg.


A friend sent me this photograph from Ireland - 'Remembering those lost, injured, uprooted in Christchurch, NZ. . . ', candles lit in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin.

Our thoughts continue to be with our Christchurch community - and, too, with those living in darkened circumstances in so many corners of our world. As Mim wrote a few days ago, 'the wick catches - a little flame swells.' Let us focus on love and light and keep our candles burning. . . 


  1. A perfect poem to have posted, Claire. It says everything about our damaged world, our dread "How shall the heart be reconciled/to its feast of losses?" How indeed. "Live in the layers" has been given a place next to 'stand in the heart.', Claire. Love, Melissa xo

  2. Oh, Claire. Beautifully chosen. And beautifully written. Thank you.

  3. Lilting and sad this Kunitz poem. It is a mystery how the poem voices loss and hope.

  4. It's a fantastic choice, something to treasure.

  5. Thank you, Claire. I'm keeping these things - Live in the layers and poems are not fulfilled until they find a body to belong to.

  6. This is a table prepared to nourish, a respite for souls, weary yet hopeful still. An alarm clock gone berserk woke me, so I turned on the computer and had quiet time to stop here, rewarded for my interrupted sleep.

    At every turn is the opportunity - or challenge - to take the higher road, to find meaning and goodness, to develop perspective for what life presents. We are all explorers, sailing into each new day on the strength of rumors, cities of gold, peril, victory or defeat. But we have no homeland awaiting our return, we can only go forward, brave or foolish, as prepared as we can be for the next adventure.

    Fine words, fine wisdom, as always. Love, Marylinn xo

  7. Such a beautiful and meaningful poem, Claire. I am touched by its honesty and by the outpourings of grief for those who suffer in Christchurch. Thank you.

  8. kunitz is so appropriate for this place, these times. as mim says, how does he do it: loss and hope at the same time. stanley was, famously, a gardener...and he also lived, famously, a long life. he knew about loss and hope--and renewal--from many perspectives.

  9. Dear Melissa - Stanley Kunitz's words have a way of speaking straight to the heart of our human reality - somehow malleable and exacting enough to be meaningful and pertinent in any situation? The lines you have highlighted spoke especially clearly to me, too. 'How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?' And yet - miraculously - it is. It knows what is required in order to bring the pieces together and make us whole? 'Live in the layers' speaks of, and to, the 'all of it', doesn't it. L, C xo

  10. Dear Rene - we are fortunate to be able to borrow words from another when our aren't forthcoming. I know you have wrestled similarly during this disorienting, tremulous time. Love to you and to your far-reaching work - Claire

  11. The way this poem voices loss and hope at the same time is indeed a mystery, Mim. We can be thankful that it does. . . L, C xo

  12. Hi Alicia - have you heard Kunitz reading his poem 'Touch me'? If not, prepare to have your heart broken then put back together again - - -


    L, C

  13. Dear Rachel - restless poems? Hungry poems? Born-to-connect poems? I like the sound of that, of them coming home to the body - ours, and the corpus mundi/anima mundi. I, too, will keep in mind 'live in the layers.' Love, C x

  14. Dear Marylinn, like you, when I wake in the night I receive it as a prompt there must be something I'm supposed to be awake to, so I get up/get listening, go with the flow. The quiet dark hours can yield things that the light ones can't?

    Your second paragraph begs a painting to accompany it, Marylinn - may I, please? Your words open up new worlds of seeing & perceiving as always. Thank you. xo

  15. Dear Elisabeth - as I said to Alicia - we are fortunate to have others' words to borrow or lean on when we ourselves are mute. I know you know what our country is going through now because of the devastating floods in Queensland. . . this being human. Thank you for adding your thoughts to ours, Elisabeth. L+ C

  16. Susan - yes, is not renewal the ultimate reward? Loss and hope are unavoidable human experiences - renewal (it seems to me) arises out of our active engagement with both so that instead of remaining in a state of despair, destruction and defeat, we move upwards, outwards and through into a place of relief, restoration, renewal. . . (what is it with 'de-' words and 're-' words; what apposite/opposite notes they sound?)

    (I love your wee tent-under-the-stars icon!) xo

  17. Dear Claire, If you see a painting in the words, then it is clearly a gift meant for you. I cannot wait to see what appears. Thank you, it is yours with my blessings. xo

  18. Dear Claire, thanks for the link. What a heartbreakingly sad poem, Maybe though, my heart isn't ready yet for mending, for the end seemed sadder than ever. Almost desperately so.
    Still, quite a poet/poem.

  19. Dear Alicia - 'Touch Me' is quite a poem, yes, and Stanley Kunitz a power to be reckoned with. His words go unapologetically, unsentimentally to the core of things, whether it be a relationship, a small object, love, aging, loss. Take care of your heart and its oh-so-tender chambers xo

  20. Dear Marylinn - I wish it were possible to draw my gratitude and post it here. Thank you, thank you. xo