Kunitz’s “from The Testing-Tree 1971”

"Robin Redbreast" isn't my favorite poem in "from The Testing-Tree 1971," nor the most important for understanding Kunitz, but it's Veterans Day, and, as usual, I have little to say about that holiday nor about the war I fought in. Some memories are so vivid that I still can't put them into words, while names are so faded that even the semantic web couldn't revive them.

For today at least, "Robin Redbreast" is my favorite poem in this section because it comes close to reflecting my own feelings about that time, while still reflecting feelings I have most of the time:

ROBIN REDBREAST

It was the dingiest bird
you ever saw, all the color
washed from him, as if
he had been standing in the rain,
friendless and stiff and cold,
since Eden went wrong.
In the house marked FOR SALE,
where nobody made a sound,
in the room where I lived
with an empty page, I had heard
the squawking of the jays
under the wild persimmons
tormenting him.
So I scooped him up
after they knocked him down,
in league with that ounce of heart
pounding in my palm,
that dumb beak gaping.
Poor thing! Poor foolish life!
without sense enough to stop
running in desperate circles,
needing my lucky help
to toss him back into his element.
But when I held him high,
fear clutched my hand,
for through the hole in his head,
cut whistle-clean . .
through the old dried wound
where the hunter's brand
had tunneled out his wits
I caught the cold flash of the blue
Unappeasable sky.

If nothing else, that dingy bird, with all the color washed out of him, reminds me of the old Polaroids I have from Vietnam, pictures of comrades I no longer remember trying to survive in an "Eden went wrong."

No matter what we did, no matter how hard we fought, we could never recapture the innocence we lost there, nor could we bring back to life comrades we lost there.

Sometimes I think if you catch me in just the right light you can still see that old dried wound where that war has tunneled out my wits.

Perhaps not, but even today when I look back I see, and feel somewhere in my heart, "the cold flash of the blue/ unappeasable sky."

Kunitz’s “from This Garland, Danger”

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

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Kunitz’s “from Passport to the War (1944)”

Although originally drawn more to the dramatic poems like "Open the Gates" in Kunitz's "from Passport to the War (1944), in the end I decided that my favorite poem, though perhaps less typical of poems in this section, was:

CARELESS LOVE

Who have been lonely once
Are comforted by their guns.
Affectionately they speak
To the dark beauty, whose cheek
Beside their own cheek glows.
They are calmed by such repose,
Such power held in hand;
Their young bones understand
The shudder in that frame.
Without nation, without name,
They give the load of love,
And it's returned, to prove
How much the husband heart
Can hold of it: for what
This nymphomaniac enjoys
Inexhaustibly is boys.

Perhaps you have to have served in the army to fully appreciate this poem, but hopefully not. The poem was obviously inspired by the Army saying, "This is my rifle, this is my gun"." But Kunitz is able to have it both ways, for he seems to be comparing the gun to the rifle.

You can obviously read the first two lines either way. People who are lonely are often comforted by sex. But, boys who feel alone and vulnerable are also comforted by holding a rifle in their hands. Just ask any G.I. in a combat zone.

When you're sitting alone in a bunker in the dark wondering who's out there, there's nothing more comforting than that sense of "power held in hand" that a rifle gives you, particularly when you feel the shudder of the force of that rifle when you fire it.

Forget the fact that your enemy probably has an equally powerful weapon in his hands. For rifles, in and of themselves, have neither "nation" nor "name." Frighteningly, though, these rifles, at least to the extent that they stand for war itself, are a "nymphomaniac," for war seems to feed "inexhaustibly" on boys, on young soldiers.

Ultimately, the power of the poem stems from the sheer sense of horror that lies in those last two lines. Almost magically, love has been transformed into death. And it's hard to imagine anything more frightening than that.

Stanley Kunitz’s “from Intellectual Things (1930)”

Although I've been reading Stanley Kunitz's poetry since I first heard him read his poetry at the University of Washington in the early 1960's, I'd never read any of the poems in the section entitled "from Intellectual Things (1930)" in The Collected Poems.

I was struck by how much these early poems reminded me of the Metaphysical Poets, with their odd conceits, comparisons that, though intellectual at first glance, manage to touch the heart instead of the mind. Even the title seems ironic, because these poems are about the human spirit, not about the human intellect. Some of the best poems, in fact, explicitly point out the limits of the brain and reason:

ORGANIC BLOOM

The brain constructs its systems to enclose
The steady paradox of thought and sense;
Momentously its tissued meaning grows
To solve and integrate experience.
But life escapes closed reason. We explain
Our chaos into cosmos, cell by cell,
Only to learn of some insidious pain
Beyond the limits of our charted hell,
A guilt nor mentioned in our prayers, a sin
Conceived against the self. So, vast and vaster
The plasmic circles of gray discipline
Spread outward to include each new disaster.
Enormous floats the brain's organic bloom
Till, bursting like a fruit, it scatters doom.

Although "Organic Bloom" seems to begin by praising the brain's ability to make sense of the world, the critical line in the poem is obviously "But life escapes closed reason," which when we look back was suggested even earlier by the phrase "the steady paradox of thought and sense" for, by its very nature, paradox seems to defy reason and an explanation must be cobbled together that explains why the apparent paradox really isn't a paradox.

On another level, though, the poem seems to describe precisely what most of us try to do our whole life, make sense out of a world in hopes of controlling it. From childhood we are taught to control chaotic emotions when our parents attempt to reason with us. Every time we think we understand life, however, something happens that irrevocably proves that we don't. But the mind in a desperate attempt to prove it's superiority races ahead once again bringing order to these dangerous emotions, even if in doing so it must resort to the wildest rationalizations.

It is, however, the image projected by the poem, the image of some gelatinous, grey mushroom-like matter spreading ever wider, covering everything with its grey matter, spreading doom, that makes the poem memorable. Modern philosophies often do seem to convey a sense of doom.

In some ways, historically the poem seems like a rejection of the dominant poetry of the time, a rejection of the intellectual poetry of "The Wasteland," and also a rejection of many of the dominant philosophies of our time.