Kunitz’s early reference in “After the Last Dynasty” to Chinese poet Li Po (701-762 c.e.), from the T’ang Dynasty, brings to mind his poetry. Li Po, from China’s Szechuan province, was known for the delicacy of his verse and for both his frequent references to flower petals and his water imagery.
Kunitz’s work is a love poem but an ironic one. It was written just as his marriage to Eleanor Evans, his second wife and the mother of his daughter, Gretchen, was crumbling. The poem, like “River Road” from the same period, breaks from the iambic lines so prevalent in American poetry, almost in defiance of past poetic conventions. Just as he is striking out into a new life, so is he launching his poetry on a different course with crisp, almost abrupt lines of free verse.
“After the Last Dynasty” is a deeply felt poem about abandonment. Kunitz compares loving the object of his poem to Chinese guerrilla warfare. She, with a “small bad heart,” failed the man who loved her, fighting him not with strength and health but with her weakness and sickness. He ponders whether she is still “mistress of the valley.” The term “mistress” recurs frequently in his poems.
Kunitz is at once impudent and sentimental in this poem. He is also guardedly humorous. In the final stanza, however, he is tender, saying that he wants to pin a new note on the door of the loved one, a message from which the sloganeering of Chairman Mao is absent. The Chairman Mao part of the poem and the “red crayon language” are subtle devices for constructing the atmosphere that makes the shift of tone in the final stanza particularly effective.