How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
Today’s poem is ‘The Layers’ by Stanley Kunitz and as you may have guessed from the above quote, it is about grief, about pain and coping with hardships.
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.
Straight away, we have an intriguing opening. The metaphor of life as a road-cum-journey is so boring today that I could barely get myself to compose this sentence, but Kunitz makes it interesting with the simple use of plurality. Lives, not life, he says–imagine that first line again as ‘I have walked through life’ and it is dead on arrival. He doubles down on his plural and even widens the scope of its meaning by following it up with ‘some of them my own,’ which I love.
Of course, he’s saying that none of us walk alone, but in fact in a tangle – I would say it’s inescapable, walking through lives, but he doesn’t present it as such. It’s strong and active, as if by choice. I love this idea of multiple lives for one body, one person; it encompasses all the changes that occur to us, both physical and not. Change is the strong theme of the poem, the transformative power of our experiences–of loss. All grief is change, disguised. All change is a kind of grief. Given how much we go through over a lifetime, how many selves we leave behind, how many deaths we die, it’s a rich and evocative conceit he sets out to explore: who wouldn’t love to take a walk through the lost snippets of our lives?
He goes on to say that despite no longer being who he was, ‘some principle of being/abides’, a kind of core self, and yet, though he posits it as such, he once again brings into play active choice: ‘from which I struggle/not to stray.’ Meaning that there is no unchanging undisputed self, and that though he recognises it as what remains despite all the change, he could stray from it if he so desired, he could be different. He chooses, and struggles in the choosing, to stay true to his perception of himself.
Let me tell you: if you’re struggling with grief or depression, this poem is an excellent read for you. It encourages you not just to put things into perspective, but to take an active role in perception itself–when it comes to depression, in particular, passively accepting the bleakness is enormously dangerous. Nothing is fixed, nothing is certain, and that is to our great advantage.
Having said all that, I have to say there are some lines in here that are a bit much for me, a bit too dramatic–but given what I’ve recently gone through, it happened to be just what I needed to read. This next line, in particular, has been ringing on repeat in my skull all week:
Yet I turn, I turn,exulting somewhat,with my will intact to gowherever I need to go,and every stone on the roadprecious to me.
The emphasis here is mine. Having suffered losses as he goes, and struggling mightily with them, he turns, exulting in his ability to do so–in the constancy of change–he can go anywhere, and no matter how long or difficult the road, every stone on it is precious to him. I love that line so very much. It is one of those grand acts of poetry, loving the hurt. It doesn’t matter how much the stones have taken from you, doesn’t matter the toll, the way they might dig into the soles of your feet, each and every experience–in helping to form the ever emerging self–is precious.
That kind of grandiloquence will, as I mentioned earlier, be too much for some people. For me, I took it as a reminder to keep things in perspective, to be grateful for what I have, no matter what I perceive as lacking, and to try, always, to love–not simply people and not simply what’s easy, but also the pain, also the loss, also the grit and the dust and the stones.