Category Archives: Stanley Kunitz

Living in the Layers

 

 

 

Once I was  married to a man who was having a psychotic breakdown, and in my distress I opened Stanley Kunitz’s poetry book, as some people open holy texts, to the poem “The Layers.”  I was on the floor of my small apartment feeling such heaviness and despair and fear, that I did not know how I would live another minute, let alone another day. This poem saved my life.

 

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 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.

I heard Kunitz read this poem at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival when he was in his nineties. Many people gathered under a tent one autumn in New Jersey, and when Kunitz read the line “I  am not done with my changes,” many of us cried. If he was not done, then those who are younger  have much work to do. This April, which is National Poetry Month, I want to share “The Layers” with you.

April has been filled with troubling news on the national and international fronts, while many of us celebrated our spring holy days of Pascha (Easter), Passover and Ridván. Our world is precarious and sometimes appears to be teetering on the brink of darkness. During Holy Week, the week before Pascha, I began attending church at a local Orthodox mission parish. It has been years since I attended so many services because I have not lived close to a church for decades. In the dark, gathering with people who read and sang hymns by the flickering candlelight, I remembered my ancestors. For 400 years my people were enslaved to the Turks. Somehow they kept their religion for future generations by practicing their faith in caves at night. Those were dark torturous times, but somehow my people survived.

For those of us who have lost close friends and family members, especially children, we know darkness. The dark night of the soul lasts much longer than one night. But Kunitz’s poem tells us that we can live despite the litter, by embracing the layers and multidimensionality of life. We can face our challenges and walk through them breathing in light and hope, even when those around us cannot see it.

As April comes to an end, we are expecting snow in Colorado. Earlier this month the snow fell on trees that had already blossomed. Snow and flowers and cold in spring. In our feast of losses I am grateful that we can continue on as we process the many layers of our sacred lives. Thank you for being part of my tribe.