Touch Me (Stanley Kunitz)

October 29, 2008

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
esire, desire, desire.
The longing for th dance
stris in the buried life.
One season only,
                          and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
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I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
The have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine Honest, I do
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stocking of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

Out in the country,
a man from the city
drives his new car
down the middle of the road.
He’s lost and doesn’t even know it.
He’s smoking a cigar,
talking to Chicago on his cellular phone,
making big deals.
But he’s no poem.

So he doesn’t see the pack of dogs,
feisty beagles and mutts from all over the country,
racing along at wheel-level beside him,
nipping at his tires.
They’re poems, all of them,
deep-winded natives,
sharp of tooth, and lean.

And he doesn’t see,
a mile down the road near the old wooden bridge,
the county sheriff
(he’s a poem too,
half laughter and tobacco,
half jokes and barbed wire)
waiting to catch him breaking the law.

And he doesn’t even imagine–he can’t–
how back at the Court House,
hunching in the dark,
the judge (a poem too,
formal and strict as a sonnet,
but nowhere near so pretty)
sits waiting and ready
to throw his ass in jail.

*

This comes from a marvelous book called Lives of the Poem: Community and Connection in a Writing Life in which Dick Hague ruminates on poems as living things. “Like bees,” he writes in the Preface, “[poems] are gregarious; they die in isolation from another. And because they are living things, the same degree of attentiveness and the same diligence and tolerance and creativity necessary to establishing and maintaining human friendships are necessary to developing a friendship with poetry.” What I love about Hague’s book is that he tracks the making of several of his own poems through their conceptualization, formation, and various revisions, as well as his efforts to get some of them published. In other words, he gives readers a true glimpse into the life of a poem, and not just the poem’s life, but into the lives and neighborhoods circulating around it and through it. The result is a conversational, at times jovial, celebration of poetry at its best.

I can pray
all day
& God
won’t come.

But if I call
911
The Devil
Be here

in a minute!

*

Since I started teaching a GED class for convicted felons at the courthouse this summer, I have been reading a poem to my students after every class session. By necessity I have had to seek out poems that I think will speak to them, speak into their world. They have indulged me so far, and some even look forward to it. This is a poem I have read a few times, and have found that it brings a light of recognition with it.