A Form of Spiritual Testimony

Stanley Kunitz’s poetry, at least for me, is “a form of spiritual testimony, the sign of the inviolable self consolidated against the enemies within and without that would corrupt or destroy human pride and dignity.” The poem “The Layers” is precisely the kind of poem that helps us see that the spirit can endure, for Kunitz has lived a remarkable life, and when you read his “confessional” poems you see just how his spirit has endured throughout a remarkable life.


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.

Maybe you have to be older to appreciate this poem, but I find “The Layers” not only delightful, but insightful. Because we get caught up in our day-to-day life we tend to lose sight of the fact that we are continually changing and that we are not the person now that we were several years ago. Sometimes it takes but a single event to change us. A war, a divorce, an operation.

It is difficult to remain true to principles when struggling against forces that threaten to defeat you. For instance, fighting in a war can make you question whether human’s are basically loving in nature, and a marriage gone astray can make you question whether true love truly exists. You hope, though, that “some principle of being abides,” that you are able to remain true to yourself.

If you are lucky there is still a “will intact to go wherever I need to go” and you will be able to focus on the best parts of life, “not on the litter.”

Most of all, you hope that you will be able to remain true to your principles during the next transformation, the one that has already begun but is still waiting to be discovered.