Meditations, Wise and Gentle: A Review of The Wild Braid
Living to be one hundred, we are told, is not the uncommon phenomenon it once was. But publishing your twentieth book to mark the occasion must certainly be regarded as unique. The cover of the late Stanley Kunitz’s last book, The Wild Braid, features a color photo of the poet in his garden. He is white-haired and bent with age. The subtitle proclaims A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden. Since he has not been gardening since birth, we get an early notice that Kunitz’s “garden” is both the celebrated one he created from sand dunes in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the garden of daily life, from personal to cosmic, that his poetry evokes with lyricism and passion.
This is a gentle book, a wise book, composed of a series of dialogues and conversations around the themes of gardening, poetry and inevitably, union with nature’s cycle of life, death, and renewal. Each chapter begins with these discussions and ends with a well-known poem. Some entries are short, less than a page. Others have enough length and unity to qualify as short essays. They read like a series of meditations, living up to the “poet reflects on” of the subtitle. Even if a reader is not, as I am, both a gardener and a poet, there is much to learn as Kunitz contemplates his world.
Credit for producing this small volume is shared with Kunitz’s assistant, Genine Lentine, with whom he had the conversations over his last years, and with photographer Marnie Crawford Samuelson. The color photographs show the poet in his garden but they make no attempt at being conventional portraits. Some are even blurred, creating the effect of a real-world glimpse of Kunitz as he moved through the landscape he spent so many summers creating. This garden overlooking the sea is as much a life work as his poetry.
There is no new poetic work here. Passing through:Tthe Later Poems, New and Selected, won the National Book Award in Poetry when Kunitz was ninety, and he celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday with The Collected Poems, a compilation of his life’s work in poetry. Winner of almost every award American poetry can bestow, teacher, editor, translator, essayist, a founder of both the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and Poets House in New York, Kunitz’s work spans the twentieth century as no other poet’s has.
What is interesting about the poems that punctuate each section, beyond the delight of revisiting these gems, is their placement in relation to the ideas presented in the text. “Woods Fields and Farms” is largely autobiographical and he takes us through his haunted childhood. Lonely and fatherless, he spent hours wandering the nearby woods, learning from animals and nature, and shouting his newly learned vocabulary words at the trees. Summers at the Quinnapoxet farm even featured a stint as a lamplighter.
Here he included “Portrait,” which recounts his mother’s refusal to deal with his father’s suicide. “Lamplighter” records a nine-year-old’s adventures touching his “enchanter’s wand” to twenty village gas lamps. In “My Mother’s Pears,” a poem shadowed by the sudden death of his beloved stepfather, he recalls planting a tree outside his newly married mother’s house.
“The Testing Tree,” a longer poem, is set off against tales of his first farm in Connecticut, where he tamed a family of owls, and his second one, in New Hope, Pennsylvania. This longer work recreates a boy’s vision of himself as champion runner, Indian stalker, who tests himself with only three throws of special stones. Coming full circle, he asks his absent father to “bless my good right arm.”
The “Provincetown” section. where he recounts the genesis of his celebrated seaside garden, includes the lighthearted “Route Six,” an example of the merry side of this centenarian:
Let’s jump in the car honey
and head straight for the cape
where the cock on our housetop crows
that the weather is fair,
and my garden waits for me
to coax it into blossom
But it also includes “The Mulch,” where he recounts gathering salt hay from the beaches for years, in “blue and northern air”:
clicks the beetle in his wrist
his heart is an educated swamp,
and he is mindful of his garden
which prepares to die.
The section ends with “The Snakes of September,” the source of the title of the book, a reference to the twined snakes he found hanging from a tree in his garden:
At my touch the wild
braid of creation
Throughout, he pays tribute to the endless cycle of birth and death, both in nature and in humanity, with great sympathy and tenderness.
“A Living Poem,” the next section’s title, is of course the garden, and here he discusses the garden as a poem, the poem as a garden, and the garden as a metaphor for a life, ending with “The Layers”:
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.
“Raccoon Journal” is Kunitz’s tribute to “The Wilderness” in nature and in the struggle to bring forth a poem from the “wild permissiveness of the inner life.” In his musings on “The Web of Creation” he emphasizes his belief in the unity of all things, speculating that it might be fun to be a bluebird for a day, “pursuing another bluebird.” Though agreeing that the rational is a necessary component, he believed strongly that, “So much of the creative life has its source in the erotic.” The poem for this section is “Touch Me,” a love poem to nature and to his beloved wife, written, to his admitted surprise, in his older years.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me.
Remind me who I am.
The final section of this gentle wise book of meditations begins with the poet’s first brush with death in March 2003 and recounts a dialogue with Genine in which he took an imaginary walk in his garden “to say goodbye.” It is titled “Renewal.” Meditating on the necessity of death, his irrepressible sense of humor bubbled through the serious discussion: “Can you imagine having your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfathers and grandmothers tottering around the household?”
One might think that “The Long Boat,” with the famous, “he loved the earth so much/ he wanted to stay forever,” would be a wonderful way to end this book. Not Kunitz. He went on to discuss the strange renewal of energy he felt, as well as the very real presence of his wife who died in 2004. He chose for the final selection “The Round,” which finds him in his basement workroom in Provincetown, working on a poem.
I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
When a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
On May 17, 2005, at a special gathering in New York to celebrate his hundredth year, a large audience stood and applauded our deep regard for Stanley Kunitz, the man, the teacher, and the poet. All of us wondered if this was the last time this “fierce crier of poems” would read to us. Sadly, it was. Kunitz died almost exactly a year later in his sleep on May 14 this year, several months shy of his hundred-and-first birthday. “The beetle at his wrist,” is stilled. “A new life begins,” of a very different kind.
M.K. Streznewski is pleased to return as a contributor to Wild River Review. Her previous contributions included profiles of Stanley Kunitz and Donald Hall as well as several essays. Streznewski’s career has included theater, journalism, and teaching of creative writing on levels from high school to senior citizen. She has served as a workshop director at the annual conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild, poetry Editor of the Bucks County Writer, and poetry curator of the Writers Room, a non-profit writer center in Doylestown, PA.
A poet, fiction writer, and author of non-fiction, Streznewski’s most recent appearances have included teaching a poetry class at the Pearl Buck House in Dublin, PA and a dramatic reading of a 13-poem sequence based on her survival of open heart surgery in 2006. Called “Rending the Heart” it was staged as part of the annual Celebration of the Spoken Word by the Medicine Show Theater Company of Manhattan. Streznewski is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Woman Words and Rag Time, which are housed in Poet’s House in New York City. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in national magazines. A non-fiction book, Gifted Grownups, the Mixed Blessing of Extraordinary Potential, appears in libraries world wide. Her short story collection, In the Eye of the Great Staring Moon, and novel, Watching Anna, are making the rounds of editors.