The quest for the lost father is one of the driving motifs of Stanley Kunitz's work. It gives his poetry an elemental shock, a grounding truth, and takes on archetypal status. As he first put it in Intellectual Things (1930): "Let sons learn from their lipless fathers how/ Man enters hell without a golden bough" ("The Lesson").
Kunitz never knew his father, who committed suicide six weeks before his son was born. It was a grave and heartbreaking prenatal loss. His mother obliterated every trace of her dead husband ("my mother's breast was thorny,/ and father I had none," Kunitz has one character sing out), and her silence created an irresolvable sense of mystery that permeated his childhood.
Kunitz took up his central subject in earnest in his groundbreaking second book, Passport to the War (1944). The key poems are "Night Letter" (" 'Pardon,' I plead, clutching the fragile sleeve/ Of my poor father's ghost returned to howl/ His wrongs"), "Father and Son" (" 'Father,' I cried, 'Return! You know/ The way. I'll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;/ No trace, I promise, will remain' "), "The Hemorrhage," "The Harsh Judgment" and "The Guilty Man," which concludes with an address:
Father, the darkness of the self goes out
And spreads contagion on the flowing air.
I walk obscurely in a cloud of dark:
Yea, when I kneeled, the dark kneeled down with me.
Touch me: my folds and my defenses fall;
I stand within myself, myself my shield.
Kunitz's sense of a search for a father who can never be found reached its apex in The Testing-Tree (1971), which I still consider one of his finest and most translucent books. "The Portrait" is hauntingly explicit:
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
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
"To find the father is to find oneself," Kunitz once told an interviewer. "And to become a father is to reenact an archetypal mystery. That's to become part of a majestic drama." Kunitz best enacts the paternal drama in his nine-part poem "Journal for My Daughter." "Your turn. Grass of confusion," he declares at the outset: "You say you had a father once:/ his name was absence./ He left, but did not let you go." Yet the poet lets go of his role as a lost son long enough to waken to another role, a glittering new world of responsibility. I especially love the way the final section of the poem turns to Coleridge:
The night when Coleridge,
bore his crying child outside,
that those brimming eyes
caught the reflection
of the starry sky,
and each suspended tear
made a sparkling moon.
(All quotations are from Stanley Kunitz, "The Collected Poems." Norton. Copyright © 2000 by Stanley Kunitz.)