|Stanley Kunitz's collected poems are an unassailable argument for age, experience, and impassioned observation. At 95, America's 10th poet laureate has many decades' worth of work under his belt, and his lyrics form a fine self-portrait even as they track his evolution toward the spare and simple. Kunitz's later poetry seems to effortlessly fuse feeling and form. With considerable wit, he sees into the life of things: a brook or a bird, a squirrel or a salmon is very much a part of nature, but it is also infinitely more, as anyone lucky enough to have read "King of the River," "The Snakes of September," and "The Wellfleet Whale" knows. |
Kunitz's "Reflections," which preface his Collected Poems, offer several modest credos. In one, he writes, "I like to think that it is the poet's love of particulars, the things of this world, that leads him to universals." And his work is ample proof that what Kunitz likes to think is right! In "Robin Redbreast," for instance, the poet--living in an empty house that will soon be his no longer and facing nothing but blank pages--rescues a bird from some belligerent jays:
It was the dingiest bird Alas, a moment's complacency at his own good deed comes to a quick end. There is no need for the poet to drive home his point--he merely provides the tragic image of an old bullet hole in the robin's head, through which he catches a glimpse of "the cold flash of the blue / unappeasable sky." Yet Kunitz did not arrive at this level without effort, and much of the pleasure of this volume lies in witnessing the growth of the poet's mind. In his first collection, Intellectual Things (1930), the young artist seems to have spent a good deal of time luxuriating in the early Yeats, displaying a sweet tooth for allegory and archaic inversion. Perhaps thinking himself "a fierce young crier / Of poems," the youthful Kunitz pursued the sublime a little too relentlessly. His second book, Passport to the War (1944), is radically different, full of darkness and repudiation, its realities and anger very close to the surface. But it really isn't until The Testing-Tree, where family comes to the fore and influence is no longer cause for anxiety, that the poet finds his voice--one that has yet to desert him.
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.
Several of Kunitz's finest, and most desolate, poems explore his father's suicide, which took place before he was born. Others, on Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder, celebrate creation in the face of immense difficulty. And there are poems, too, of resistance: this generous collection includes translations of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Blok, as well as his own "Around Pastor Bonhoeffer," which commemorates the pacifist cleric who was part of the plot to kill Hitler. Throughout there are also love songs--to nature and women. "Route Six" makes one wonder why there isn't an official term for a poem celebrating an enduring marriage--an epithalamium with, as they say, legs. After a quarrel, Kunitz suggests to his wife that they head for the Cape, taking with them those passions "that flare past understanding":
we can stow them in the rear In "The Layers," the poet asks point-blank: "How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?" Reconciliation, Kunitz knows, isn't possible, but his work proves that the raptures of love and art are a strong consolation. --Kerry Fried
along with ziggurats of luggage
and Celia, our transcendental cat,
past-mistress of all languages,
including Hottentot and silence.