Entry for May 18, 2006

The above picture  shows Provincetown’s Town Manager Keith Bergman presenting a proclamation declaring it Stanley Kunitz Day on the occasson of his 1ooth birthday on July 29, 2005.  Kunitz has passed away in his sleep May 14 as he neared the age of 101. 

Poet Greg Orr at UVA was one of his many students and read with him for the first time at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2001.  He credits Kunitzwith teaching Orr what poetry was. At the time Orr said of Kunitz’s collection, The Testing Tree,   it 

was an incredibly important book for him and also for me,.He was publishing for the first time a book of poems that addressed his own personal childhood experience, both trauma and suffering in that childhood and the ways that a fascination of poetry could transform that suffering.

Here is the title poem;

The Testing Tree

1

On my way home from school
   up tribal Providence Hill
      past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
   I scuffed in the drainage ditch
      among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
   rolled out of glacial time
      into my pitcher’s hand;
then sprinted lickety-
   split on my magic Keds
      from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
   with my flying skin
      as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
   over that stretch of road,
      with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
   that on the given course
      I was the world’s fastest human.

2

Around the bend
   that tried to loop me home
      dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
   riddled with rabbit-life
      where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
   and a stringy old lilac
      more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
   remembered a door in the
      long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
   brushing the stickseed off,
      wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel’s hair,
   spotting the print of the deer
      and the red fox’s scats.
Once I owned the key
   to an umbrageous trail
      thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
   gave me right of passage
      as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
   soundlessly heel-and-toe
      practicing my Indian walk.

3

Past the abandoned quarry
   where the pale sun bobbed
      in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
   where the ferns gave foothold,
      I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
   with the stones in my pocket
      changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
   to the slightest leaf-stir.
      I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
   at fifty measured paces,
      of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
   Jehovah of acorns,
      watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip’s War
   in its annulated core
      under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
    I have only three throws
       bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
   while the air flowed saffron,
      I played my game for keeps–
for love, for poetry,
   and for eternal life–
      after the trials of summer.

4

In the recurring dream
   my mother stands
      in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
   with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
      Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
   she is wearing an owl’s face
      and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
   I pass through the cardboard doorway
      askew in the field
and peer down a well
   where an albino walrus huffs.
      He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
   staining the water yellow,
      why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
   That single Model A
      sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
   where the tanks maneuver,
      revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!

On a lighter note, Orr added,

He’s an unbelievably tough bird. He may look a little frail, but let me tell you, this guy’s tough. He’s 95. Not many people get that far. You’re looking at someone who, for a guy, is actually 20 years out past the legal limit.

 I saw Kunitz read at the Holocaust Museum on a Sunday afternoon in April  four years ago when he was “only” 96.  He read his own Holocaust-related poems and that of Paul Celan  (who had escaped death in a Nazi workcamp) and others.

Here is a transcript of an interview, a well as its  video,  with Elizabeth Farnsworth  on October 26, 2000 PBS NewsHour, as well as a webcast of his  reading at the Library of Congress.   The American Academy of Poets has posted “Openhearted: Stanley Kunitz and Mark Wunderlich in Conversation”, an  interview from American Poet Magazine.

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