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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Very few human lives are as long as that of Stanley Kunitz, who died last week at the age of 100, and few artists have had productive careers as long as his. Here is "Touch Me," the final poem in his Collected Poems . It first appeared in Passing Through: The Later Poems , published in 1995:

Touch Me

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?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs 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.

"Remind me who I am" -- a memorable last line. Who was Stanley Kunitz? Here's a personal note: I once saw a photograph of Stanley as a very young boy, taken at the funeral of his stepfather, a generous, kindly man who married a widow with three children and cared for them until his sudden, untimely death of a stroke. Stanley Kunitz's father killed himself in a public park, six weeks before the poet was born. The mother never forgave that abandonment, and in her rage at all anniversaries, in response to the anniversary of that violence, she forbade the observation of birthdays. In the poem "Portrait" she tears up a photograph of the dead man, discovered by his son in the attic. Then having torn the portrait to shreds, she slaps the boy's face.

In that photograph I saw of young Kunitz, the child in his ill-fitting shirt and awkward necktie stands as straight as a guardsman. His face is solemn and fierce with determination. In my mind, that courageous, even defiant moment of grief defines Kunitz: He was determined to live, to fight death to the last millimeter, to endure. That force of will underlies the baroque formality of his early poems, the plainness of poems such as "Touch Me," his ambitious and meticulous gardening, his fostering of younger poets -- all driven by a tremendous loyalty to life.

(Stanley Kunitz's poem "Touch Me" can be found in "The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz." Norton. Copyright © 2000 by Stanley Kunitz.)

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