For me at least, Stanley Kunitz truly reaches his stride with the poems found in "from This Garland Danger." I've loved "She Loved, She Railed" since I first read it in the 60's, and poems such as "The Approach to Thebes," "End of Summer," and "Hermetic Poem" are equally compelling.
Reading the poems this time around, though, my favorite poem would have to be:
THE THING THAT EATS THE HEART
The thing that eats the heart comes wild with years.
It died last night, or was it wounds before,
But somehow crawls around, inflamed with need,
Jingling its medals at the fang-scratched door.
We were not unprepared: with lamp and book
We sought the wisdom of another age
Until we heard the action of the bolt.
A little wind investigates the page.
No use pretending to the pitch of sleep;
By turnings we are known, our times and dates
Examined in the courts of either/or
While armless griefs mount lewd and headless doubts.
It pounces in the dark, all pity-ripe,
An enemy as soft as tears or cancer,
In whose embrace we fall, as to a sickness
Whose toxins in our cells cry sin and danger.
Hero of crossroads, how shall we defend
This creature-lump whose charity is art
When its own self turns Christian-cannibal?
The thing that eats the heart is mostly heart.
For me, much of the appeal of this poem comes from the final line, "The thing that eats the heart is mostly heart." I still remembered it from first reading it over 30 years ago. But most of all, it seems to me to offer a profound insight into human nature that rings as true today as the first time I read it.
In many the poem ways seems typical of many of the poems in this section of The Collected Poems. It is somehow both cryptic and mythic. Though it reminds me of the power of Stephen Crane's startling poem "The Heart", and, even some of Roethke's tortured poetry, in the end it seems uniquely Kunitz.
In fact, it's easy to link it to the lines "The secret my heart keeps/Flows into cracked cups" from "Hermetic Poem" or to "The Scourge." The sense of despair conveyed by the poem, becomes an important element in Kunitz's poetry, fusing with the "lost father" motif.
It is a pain that he has prepared for for a long time. But no ancient wisdom or wisdom from a book, by itself, can soothe the kind of existential pain portrayed here. It's the kind of pain that haunts us at night, invading our dreams and becoming part of our very existence. It's like a cancerous growth that eats away at us.
We may wish it was an external enemy that we could confront like a hero at the crossroads, but such pain can never be defeated directly for it is more insidious than that. It is the kind of pain that Dimmesdale felt in the Scarlet Letter, the kind that eats away from the inside, threatening our very existence until we can free ourselves from it.