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Speaking Volumes: Portrait of a Poet: The natural world as it affects human nature

June 30, 2005 By:
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"I think of gardening as an extension of one's being, something as deeply personal and intimate as writing a poem." Stanley Kunitz
When The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz appeared five years ago, I wrote that the central moment in the poet's life - as well as in the deeply textured universe he's created during his nearly 70-year career - was his father's suicide. And perhaps his most famous crystallization of that tragic and seminal event - and the terrible ramifications it has wrought - comes in the poem titled "The Portrait," one of Kunitz's most obviously autobiographical works.

"My mother never forgave my father for killing himself, especially at such an awkward time and in a public park, that spring when I was waiting to be born. She locked his name in her deepest cabinet and would not let him out, though I could hear him thumping. When I came down from the attic with the pastel portrait in my hand of a long-lipped stranger with a brave moustache and deep brown level eyes, she ripped it into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard. In my sixty-fourth year I can feel my cheek still burning."

Now that W.W. Norton has released The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden - a series of conversations with Kunitz's assistant Genine Lentine, published in honor of the poet's 100th birthday - I'm more certain of the centrality of the work than ever before, since he has included "The Portrait" in this new book along with a sampling of others of his poems related to the natural world.

It may sound odd that in a celebratory volume - celebratory of the writer's longevity, and of his bond with nature and his own personal garden in Cape Cod - such a poem is given a place of primacy. But when I finished The Wild Braid, I understood.

Nature, one of Kunitz's great sources of solace and inspiration, is not without its troubling side. In the very real form of the tree his father hanged himself upon in that public park long ago, nature elicits awe, as well as bearing tidings of death.

The Wild Braid also includes exquisite color photos by Marnie Crawford Samuelson of Kunitz puttering, as well as he could as he neared 100, in the extensive, variegated garden he has maintained for many years at his summer home. (He has always split his time between Greenwich Village and the Cape.) For all their beauty, however, the photos ask you to face the poet's mortality head on, in the repeated images of his frailty. And in the text, there is a long description of Kunitz's most recent brush with death, and what he learned from it.

The book is a deep and stirring meditation on art and the natural world. Here is a typical passage of one of the conversations: "I think of gardening as an extension of one's being, something as deeply personal and intimate as writing a poem. The difference is that the garden is alive and it is created to endure just the way a human being comes into the world and lives, suffers, enjoys, and is mortal. The lifespan of a flowering plant can be so short, so abbreviated by the changing of the seasons, it seems to be a compressed parable of the human experience.

"The garden is, in a sense, the cosmos in miniature, a condensation of the world that is open to your senses. It doesn't end at the limits of your own parcel of land, or your state, or your own nation. Every cultivated plot of land is symbolic of the surprises and ramifications of life itself in all its varied forms, including the human."

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