thomas m wilson

The Slow Fires Trailing of Stanley J. Kunitz

August 27th, 2008

The recently deceased American poet Stanley J. Kunitz once wrote a poem called ‘Layers’. I want to quote some lines from this poem, as they seem to me to perfectly capture the experience of loss that is part of being human. Despite the heart’s ‘feast of losses’, we mostly manage to continue onwards down the road. With poetry like this to bring into speech the reality of loss, somehow such experiences seem more tractable.  With his language Kunitz makes it easier for us to continue on down the road.  Here are a few lines from ‘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.