The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz 2005
I read and loved Kunitz’s book when it was published and re-read it 10 years ago. I was led to it for a third time by Liza Ketchum’s garden memoir, ‘The Last Garden’, in which she quoted him in one of her chapter epigraphs. I loved ‘The Wild Braid’ even more this time around.
Kunitz, who died in 2006 just short of his 101st birthday, is a superb and much-honored poet (U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, Bollingen Prize) who bought a house on Commercial St. in Provincetown in 1962 with his wife, the artist Elaine Asher. The house was fronted by a sand dune which Kunitz then spent 40 years gardening, first upgrading the soil with seaweed and compost and then planting with a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. This book entwines his experience writing poetry with his experience gardening, finding parallels and similarities between the two at every turn. “My garden, my life, my poems—planned disorder.”
The book is ostensibly drawn from interviews with Kunitz by Genine Lentine, a poet and gardener who lives in Provincetown, but it is not clear whether these are transcriptions, recollections, edits or how Kunitz’s words came to be on these pages. Lentine’s web site describes her as ‘co-author’ of the book. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful book except for the final chapter where Lentine leads Kunitz through an examination of his feelings and thoughts after a near death experience. It would have been better to leave those pages on the cutting floor. There are also some wonderful photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson of Kunitz in his garden.
The book contains two of my very favorite poems of all time, ‘The Layers’ and ‘The Long Boat’. Forgive the length, but I include them here for your enjoyment:
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./When I look behind, as I am compelled to look/before I can gather strength/to proceed on my journey,/I see milestones dwindling/toward the horizon/and the slow fires trailing/from the abandoned camp-sites,/over which scavenger angels/wheel on heavy wings./Oh, I have made myself a tribe/out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered!/How shall the heart be reconciled/to its feast of losses?/In a rising wind/the manic dust of my friends,/those who fell along the way,/bitterly stings my face./Yet I turn, I turn,/exulting somewhat,/with my will intact to go/wherever I need to go,/and every stone on the road/precious to me./In my darkest night,/when the moon was covered/and I roamed through wreckage,/a nimbus-clouded voice/directed me:/”Live in the layers,/not on the litter,”/Though I lack the art/to decipher it,/no doubt the next chapter/in my book of transformations/is already written./I am not done with my changes.
The Long Boat
When his boat snapped loose/from its mooring, under/the screaking of the gulls,/he tried at first to wave/to his dear ones on shore,/but in the rolling fog/they had already lost their faces./Too tired even to choose/between jumping and calling,/somehow he felt absolved and free/of his burdens, those mottoes/stamped on his name-tag:/conscience, ambition, and all/that caring./He was content to lie down/with the family ghosts/in the slop of his cradle,/buffeted by the storm,/endlessly drifting./Peace! Peace!/To be rocked by the Infinite!/As if it didn’t matter/which way was home;/as if he didn’t know/he loved the earth so much/he wanted to stay forever.