At age ninety-five, Stanley Kunitz published The Collected Poems, his twelfth book of poetry, and what a splendid volume it is. Furthermore, just a few months before The Collected Poems came out, Kunitz was appointed the nation’s tenth poet laureate. Still, according to Dinitia Smith’s August 2, 2000, article in The New York Times, he hoped to get at least one more book out “in this millennium.” That Kunitz deserves recognition, however, for more than just a very active—and certainly remarkable—longevity as a man and as a poet is amply demonstrated byThe Collected Poems. This volume is a rich and thoughtful retrospective of Kunitz’s oeuvre, and every poem in it delights the reader with its acute phrasing, its keen observation, and its emotional and intellectual power.
Kunitz was a poet from childhood, when teachers noticed his poetic talents. When he was a student at Harvard, Robert Gay, a visiting professor there, told him, “You are a poet—be one.” Subsequently, he won the coveted Lloyd McKim Garrison Medal for Poetry in 1926, and after college began to publish his poems in Poetry, Commonweal, The New Republic, The Nation, and The Dial. These poems were collected in his first book, Intellectual Things (1930), which is represented in the volume under review. Thus, at the time when The Collected Poems was published, he had a record of more than seventy years of steady and notable poetic production and publication.
Every reader will no doubt compile his or her list of favorites out of the volume, and this essay will do no less, since space limits require selectivity. Several, though, will surely make everyone’s “A-list.” “The Science of the Night” is one such piece, a powerful, sensitive poem in which the speaker addresses his sleeping companion. They have made love, and she has fallen asleep. He touches her, watches her, a “careless sprawler,” and marvels at the “long seduction of the bone” that has led her down through her genetic history to this particular point in their lives where, sexually spent “on a rumpled field,” he wonders at her origins. Even if he could trace her lineage “through all the cities of [her] mortal trial,” he knows that she is, indeed, star-stuff, “light-years gone.” However, his insight moves far beyond this commonplace, and in a few short lines Kunitz compresses the scientific history of human origins and the mystery of it all. “We are not souls but systems, and we move/ In clouds of our unknowing/ like great nebulae.” To render such a vast concept understandable, he uses the ancient human myth of Eve’s being created from Adam’s rib. His lover and he have had their beginnings, both physical and spiritual, from the big bang that started it all, now represented by that rib bone, literally the stuff of “planetary dust . . . blowing/ Past archipelagoes of myth and light.” This sort of tight layering of thought and allusion is typical of Kunitz and useful to any who would understand how a serious craftsman achieves his effects.
Understanding, faith, and science combine to tell a little about who humans are and where they came from, but, just as physicists calculate that position from the “beginning of things” by measuring the shift of perceived light toward the red end of the spectrum, so the poet calculates the distances that lie between one’s observation of and participation in the act of love and one’s grasp of the wonder of it all. “I see the lines of your spectrum shifting red,/ The universe expanding, thinning out,/ Our worlds flying, oh flying, fast apart.” Life is short and the time for enjoying the human touch rapidly diminishes. Therefore, he summons her from the mysteries of origins and the meanings of life and commands her to “Awake!” The final three lines of the poem sum his argument with a particularly deft allusion to John Donne’s magnificent sonnet “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”: “My whirling...
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