Themes and Meanings

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“As one who was not predestined, either by nature or by art, to become a prolific poet, I must admit it pleases me that, thanks to longevity, the body of my work is beginning to acquire a bit of heft.” This sentence, from the author’s note to The Poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1928-1978, was written nearly twenty years before the publication of “Touch Me.” By his ninetieth birthday his longevity had led to an even more substantial body of work, of which “Touch Me” is perhaps emblematic.

“Touch Me” gives the reader, above all, a sensibility. It is an old man’s poem, a poem of looking back, of putting a lifetime in perspective. Yet it is also a poem of continued renewal, very much of the present. The ending is not elevated; it does not try to make language fill the void. The poet falters at the edge of the visionary, where the song has “flown,” pulling back from the urge to fabricate in favor of the urge to resuscitate. At the exact moment when Kunitz’s earlier poems would have made a transformative leap, this poem settles back. The poet forgoes rhyme and rhythm in favor of statement, a deflated kind of poetry that makes the ending both terrifying and poignant. Moving quickly from contemplation to a moment of action, or implied action, the poet connects to his past and his future simultaneously. The emotional moment has already been completed, and the poem is recapitulation. “Remind me,” he says, not “tell,” or “show.” The act (the touch), if it comes, will remind him of what has already been fulfilled.

In some ways, “Touch Me” is about poetry itself and its regenerative, life-giving powers: “The longing for the dance/ stirs in the buried life.” The “buried life” of the garden is echoed in the poet’s buried past, brought to life through memory. His need to give and receive love has been reactivated through coincidence—the intersection of memory and geography that gives rise to the poem. There is, however, some implied equivocation: Poetry can only do so much. Thus “Touch Me” is a poem of completion and incompletion; it makes the link for the poet (as in his memory of his earlier line), but that is not sufficient. His wife can reconnect him to his life through touch, the physical act no poem can reproduce. The gesture of poetry is superseded by one of human contact.

Speaking of poetry as a form of blessing, Kunitz tells readers (in an introduction to Passing Through that he called “Instead of a Foreword”) that “it would be healthier if we could locate ourselves in the thick of life, at every intersection where values and meanings cross, caught in the dangerous traffic between self and universe.” In “Touch Me,” Kunitz has located himself at that intersection. If he is the equivalent of the “battered old willow,” then he is also the man who can turn to his wife with an endearment and rekindle love. If the speaker is merely “passing through,” as the title of the entire collection suggests, then what is the meaning of an individual life? Stalled in the memory of youthful emotion, Kunitz admits vulnerability. Yet the title of the poem is reciprocal. In asking her to touch him, he touches others through his poem. In its very uncertainty, “Touch Me” is affirmative; as the poet finds himself asking all the old questions, he sees through them to where, although life has “one season only,” he is happily and healthily still in the thick of it.

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