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:


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.”