Wednesday, September 21, 2005

An Elegy for Summer: Two Poems by Stanley Kunitz

The poet Stanley Kunitz celebrated his 100th birthday on July 29, 2005. While he's been writing for more than three-quarters of a century, I've been acquainted with his work for only a little more than a decade. I bought his book Passing Through shortly before visiting Provincetown, Massachusetts several years ago. He has a house there, which he shared with his wife, Elise Asher, an artist whose expressionistic and evocative painting "The Long Boat" graces the cover of Passing Through. Elise died a few years ago. Mr. Kunitz still spends summers in Provincetown, cultivating his terraced garden. His fame there is based in equal parts on his presence as a constant gardener and his eloquent writing.

Mr. Kunitz's summer home—he lives in New York City part time—is on the far west end of Commercial Street, Provincetown's main thoroughfare. Commercial Street, a narrow one-way road shared during the busy summer season by cars, bicycles, and people walking and rollerblading, starts in the east end of town. Traveling west, by whatever means one chooses, the visitor passes charming salt box houses surrounded on all sides by dune grasses and wildflowers; Norman Mailer's home, which is the only brick house in town; the former home of novelist John Dos Passos and his wife Katie; a stone and brass marker on the site where the Provincetown Players gathered and presented the plays of Eugene O'Neill in the 1920s; the Provincetown Art Museum; a string of small art galleries featuring the works of locally famous artists; and the beginnings of dozens of retail stores.

At the center of town, still heading west, depending on the season, drag queens as tall and broad as any NBA star stroll together singing gay-appropriated anthems first sung by Donna Summer, Cher, and Barbara Streisand; Spiritus Pizza, a hang out most popular after the bars close in the earliest morning hours; ubiquitous bed & breakfasts; and, in the midst of this gay Mecca, a Coast Guard station. Commercial Street makes a sharp turn at this point, passing the locally celebrated artist John Dowd's home, notable for the bust of Shakespeare peering down on passers-by from an upstairs window, and becomes a residential precinct. It is along this last stretch of road that one can glimpse, if he pauses long enough and pays close attention, Stanley Kunitz tending his garden with precision and assurance.

For a very long time I've wanted to send Mr. Kunitz pictures of my own garden. While far more modest than his, I draw my inspiration for planting from the mental image I carry of him, trowel in hand. After one of my first visits to Provincetown, I mailed him my copy of Passing Through. I included a note praising his garden and asking him to autograph the book. One day, several weeks later, I was thrilled to find a padded envelope, the same one I'd addressed to myself in hopes he'd use it to return the book, in my mailbox. In the book, he wrote: "To Michael Owens, who stopped by my garden gate. Yes, that was a border of lamb's-ears you spotted on the top tier!"

One day, he will join his wife Elise and they will together make heaven a better place. In the meantime, I imagine him putting his Provincetown garden to sleep as he prepares to return to New York City. Or perhaps he'll think better of it this year and decide to keep watch over the dormant terraces.

Here are two favorite poems by Stanley Kunitz. The End of Summer comes recommended by my friend Ada, a fellow admirer of Kunitz's work. The last line in the third stanza is one of the most poignant I’ve ever read. It's most appropriate this week as the equinox overtakes us and we lumber into autumn. The other poem, Day of Foreboding, has resonated for me since I first cracked the spine of Passing Through, back in 1996.

The End of Summer

An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.

I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.

Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
the roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
that part of my life was over.

Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their population forth,
And a cruel wind blows.

Day of Foreboding

Great events are about to happen.
I have seen migratory birds
in unprecedented numbers
descend on the coastal plain,
picking the margins clean.
My bones are a family in their tent
huddled over a small fire
waiting for the uncertain signal
to resume the long march.

Stanley Kunitz photographed in his Provincetown garden by Renate Ponsold

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Where the Mind Goes for Hope: Can Art and Poetry Elevate the Spirit in Times of Tragedy and Despair?

Several years ago, during an intense emotional crisis from which I believed only in fleeting moments I might recover, I spent a lot of time in the rooms dedicated to small French paintings at the National Gallery of Art. The moment I walked into these quiet galleries, my mind was calmed and the turmoil gripping my heart subsided, if even for a short time. A favorite landscape painting by Corot, or a portrait by Berthe Morisot of her sister, Edma, seated on a wall along a riverbank, or a still-life of an arrangement of flowers by Eduard Manet painted only days before his death transported me, however briefly, to a place in my imagination invulnerable to despair.

I also found comfort in reading Joan Didion's magnificent 1967 essay called, "Goodbye to All That," in which she chronicles her move as a recent college graduate to New York City from Sacramento, California. With stunning precision, she captures the awe of an outsider in a mythic place, and traces her initial infatuation with the city to a late state of supreme disenchantment. While it's a melancholy story, her writing is mesmerizing. I loved losing myself in her descriptions of the city's unique characteristics, and also the way she conveyed the hope of youth encountering the innumerable opportunities of New York City.

Poetry, too, gave me reprieve from sadness. Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things," Jane Kenyon's "Let Evening Come," Philip Levine's "Trees," and Anthony Hecht's "Sisters" and "Proust on Skates," pulled my mind into the world's their words created.

I was reminded of all of these pieces of comfort this week when I received a letter from my friend Ada. In it she included a poem by Langston Hughes called "To You." Ada and I share the philosophy, along with many others, that art and literature have the power to transform lives. Obviously, exquisitely arranged words or masterpieces of art alone cannot rebuild cities or restore life. What they offer is intangible and unquantifiable, because those kinds of works most often touch a person's soul—something that cannot be comprehended by science or medicine. The arts inspire courage and action, sooth desperation, ignite passion, or express love. They are, therefore, about the abstractions of life, which often, I think many poeple believe, renders them insufficient as remedies for the troubles and afflictions inherent in it.

It's a shame, really, that more attention isn't given to equipping people with the tools that can carry them through episodes of crisis. Thousands of Americans have struggled with despair these past two weeks as many of them lost every piece of property including their homes and all the personal possessions that filled them. All that's left when those things are taken from us is our imagination. And, properly equipped, it's the most powerful mechanism for escape from the worst of circumstances. Poems, the mental image of a favorite painting or other work of art, scenes from movies, passages from songs, lines from books—these are all mobile means for inspiring hope during dark periods in our lives. Every single one of us has the capacity to restrain despair, if only for a moment.

Hughes's poem speaks of the expansive canvas the imagination can cover with dreams. Poetry, or any art form, is not going to change the world, rebuild a city, or bring back what was lost. Together with the human imagination, however, poetry, literature, and art can empower and encourage people to believe themselves capable of making change happen.

To You

To sit and dream, to sit and read,
To sit and learn about the world
Outside our world of here and now—
Our problem world—
To dream of vast horizons of the soul
Through dreams made whole,
Unfettered, free—help me!
All you who are dreamers too,
Help me to make
Our world anew.
I reach out my dreams to you.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes photographed by Gordon Parks

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Doing Things the Right Way: What the Past Can Teach Us, If We Let It

This evening I took some time to wander again through the day's newspaper. I stopped on the editorial page of the New York Times when I came across the headline of the attached piece by Simon Winchester titled "Before the Flood."

Many people writing during the past week, as the devastating effects of the natural disaster in New Orleans have spiraled out of control to overwhelming and stunning proportions, have discussed Hurricane Katrina’s far-reaching destruction alongside that of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In fact, there seems to no disputing that the two events resemble each other in the ways that nature indiscriminately wasted the two cities. It's clear from all the pictures being spread across the media that New Orleans will require rebuilding just as did San Francisco.

Another thing the media reports agree on is the missed opportunities by a vast network of government agencies to respond more immediately to the devastation of the hurricane. Simon Winchester's Times editorial reminds us of the tremendous efforts by a much smaller and far less sophisticated nation to reach out to a city and its people at a time of desperate need. It's a humbling piece of writing, and humility would seem to be the most appropriate response our government leaders could demonstrate as they address this current national crisis.

September 8, 2005
Before the Flood

THE last time a great American city was destroyed by a violent caprice of nature, the response was shockingly different from what we have seen in New Orleans. In tone and tempo, residents, government institutions and the nation as a whole responded to the earthquake that brought San Francisco to its knees a century ago in a manner that was well-nigh impeccable, something from which the country was long able to derive a considerable measure of pride.

This was all the more remarkable for taking place at a time when civilized existence was a far more grueling business, an age bereft of cellphones and Black Hawks and conditioned air, with no Federal Emergency Management Agency to give us a false sense of security and no Weather Channel to tell us what to expect.

Nobody in the "cool gray city of love," as the poet George Sterling called it, had the faintest inkling that anything might go wrong on the early morning of April 18, 1906. Enrico Caruso and John Barrymore - who both happened to be in town - and 400,000 others slumbered on, with only a slight lightening of eggshell-blue in the skies over Oakland and the clank of the first cable cars suggesting the beginning of another ordinary day.

Then at 5:12 a.m. a giant granite hand rose from the California earth and tore through the city. Palaces of brick held up no better than gold-rush shanties of pine and redwood siding; hot chimneys, electric wires and gas pipes toppled, setting a series of fires that, with the water mains broken and the hydrants dry, proceeded over the next three dreadful days and nights to destroy what remained of the imperial city. In the end, at least 3,000 were dead and 225,000 homeless.

Everyone who survived remembered: there was at first a shocked silence; then the screams of the injured; and then, in a score of ways and at a speed that matched the ferocity of the wind-whipped fires, people picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, took stock and took charge.

A stentorian Army general named Frederick Funston realized he was on his own - his superior officer was at a daughter's wedding in Chicago - and sent orders to the Presidio military base. Within two hours scores of soldiers were marching in to the city, platoons wheeling around the fires, each man with bayonet fixed and 20 rounds of ball issued; they presented themselves to Mayor Eugene Schmitz by 7:45 a.m. - just 153 minutes after the shaking began.

The mayor, a former violinist who had previously been little more than a puppet of the city's political machine, ordered the troops to shoot any looters, demanded military dynamite and sappers to clear firebreaks, and requisitioned boats to the Oakland telegraph office to put the word out over the wires: "San Francisco is in ruins," the cables read. "Our city needs help."

America read those wires and dropped everything. The first relief train, from Los Angeles, steamed into the Berkeley marshalling yards by 11 o'clock that night. The Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service, like the Army not waiting for orders from back East, ran fire boats and rescue ferries. The powder companies worked overtime to make explosives to blast wreckage.

Washington learned of the calamity in the raw and unscripted form of Morse Code messages, with no need for the interpolations of anchormen or pollsters. Congress met in emergency session and quickly passed legislation to pay all imaginable bills. By 4:00 a.m. on April 19, William Taft, President Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of war, ordered rescue trains to begin pounding toward the Rockies; one of them, assembled in Virginia, was the longest hospital train ever assembled.

Millions of rations were sped in to the city from Oregon and the Dakotas; within a week virtually every military tent in the Army quartermaster general's stock was pitched in San Francisco; and within three weeks some 10 percent of America's standing army was on hand to help the police and firefighters (whose chief had been killed early in the disaster) bring the city back to its feet.

To the great institutions go the kudos of history, and rightly so. But I delight in the lesser gestures, like that of the largely forgotten San Francisco postal official, Arthur Fisk, who issued an order on his personal recognizance: no letter posted without a stamp, and that clearly comes from the hand of a victim, will go undelivered for want of fee. And thus did hundreds of the homeless of San Francisco let their loved ones know of their condition - a courtesy of a time in which efficiency, resourcefulness and simple human kindness were prized in a manner we'd do well to emulate today.

Simon Winchester is the author of the forthcoming book "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906."

Monday, September 05, 2005

"I had the time of my life"—Something Magical Can Happen When a Person Stumbles Onto The Unexpected

Recently a friend took a detour into the exciting realm of intense feeling with what has to be one of the most fun things that could happen to a person during this time of year—a summer romance. He shared some of his thoughts about those feelings with me. With his permission, I share them here.

He writes:

"About a month ago, bored with work and desperate for a change of scenery, I escaped to the beach for a few days of self-imposed exile. Before too long, however, I was tired of all the solitude and tranquility and was ready to pack it in and head home. Then, I remembered why I'd come. I was forcing myself to relax, to do something different. Instead of packing the car to leave, I hopped on my bike and rode to the beach. After all, I'd been only a mile from it for two days without even once stepping out onto the sand and into the water.

It was late, and the small mid-week crowds were already making their way back to town. I parked my bicycle, trudged through the sand and surf to the far end of the beach, found a quiet spot, unfolded my towel, pulled out my iPod, and watched the waves rush up to me, crash, then recede again. A couple walked by, he holding her hand, with their heads turned to the sea. A man with headphones and a portable CD player was dancing solo on the packed sand. Two dogs chased a piece of driftwood into the waves.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man approach and wander further down the beach. He looked back and smiled. I noticed the glint from an earring on each of his ears. Tall and lanky, he collapsed onto a towel, and just as quickly got up and lumbered down the beach, head turned to the surf.

I chatted briefly with another guy who said he'd started coming to this stretch of beach because the one closer to town was too rocky. The city, he told me, had attempted to replenish the beach after winter storms eroded it, but instead they'd managed to do nothing but fill it with rocks. Anyway, he remarked, he liked the solitude here. Soon he said goodbye and my own piece of quiet returned.

It was hot and humid and beads of sweat started to roll down my neck. I tugged off my shirt and ran into the waves. On that sultry day in August, the water was frigid and a shock to my system. It occurred to me this morning, walking along that same beach under cloudy skies and beaten by a cool wind, that the temperature of the water seems to run counter to that of the ambient air. This morning, the water was warm and protected me from the breeze.

But on that day last month the sea was cold and the surf rough; the waves were relentless and tossed me a few times. I heard a voice speak to me from somewhere nearby. It was the tall man with the sparkling ear lobes trying to talk above the sound of crashing waves. We floated near each other sharing small talk until my teeth began to chatter and a wave threw us together.

A few minutes later we were sitting on his blanket. We talked a little about the area. It's new to me, I said. He told me it was his second season in town and that he was a traveling nurse whose next assignment was taking him to Connecticut. The sun was sinking low on the horizon. He asked if I'd be interested in seeing it set near the lighthouses in the bay of the neighboring town. We made a detour to a World War II lookout tower from which young soldiers searched the waters for enemy submarines, now open to beachgoers.

At the top of the tower, as a few kids listened to their shouts echo in the stairs below, we leaned against the railing, peering at the sea. He told me he was trying to get over a fear of heights. I wanted to step out onto the ledge to get a better view of the scrub beneath the tower and wondered how anybody so tall could be the least bit afraid of heights.

The sun set spectacularly behind a long-since obsolete, but charming, lighthouse. We drove back into town. He took me to a local cemetery to see how ancient grave markers had been preserved in the fabric of a contemporary brick retaining wall. Then we went back to his place, showered off the sand and sea salt, and went to dinner. Finally, at midnight, he took me back to my friend's house where I was staying. The day I thought would end many miles from the beach and in another state was ending instead right where it started.

A month has passed and the tall and lanky man and I have communicated regularly by e-mail ever since the week of our first meeting. We've also seen each other a couple of times, and spent this long Labor Day weekend alone together and with our friends.

I often think how remote seems the possibility of meeting the "right" guy, somebody who I might consider the "one." I'm not suggesting that I've met him, yet. But after spending many moments talking with this man, reading his thoughtful pieces of e-mail correspondence, and meeting his friends this past weekend, I am prepared to say that he is the "kind" of guy I could imagine loving, the type of person to whom I could say, one day, "I love you."

It's a scary place to be emotionally, and always has been for me. Relationships are so tenuous. Love, faith, trust—these words are, for me, the verbal equivalents of Mount Everest. I've never been confident I could reach their heights. And I've lived many years under the impression that they were things nobody was capable of offering me. The thought of accepting those gestures, and more precisely believing in them, renders me as panic-stricken for oxygen as those intrepid climbers must find themselves on their way to nature's highest summit.

I'm trying to live in the moment in this new place, and mostly I'm doing it. But, it seems just as natural to wonder every now and again how far I might be able to go emotionally with this fine person, should opportunity take us there.

For the time being it's been a lot of fun. I've laughed a lot. I've surprised myself by how demonstrative and affectionate I've been with this person. I've even been able to sleep, actually shut my eyes and drift into unconsciousness, while inviting the embrace of this person without the slightest discomfort or hesitation. When he told me, after our first night sleeping together, that he was afraid he might have pushed me all the way to the other side of the bed in finding his favorite resting position (on his back), I had to laugh. After what seems like a lifetime of sleeping alone, I too have my own favorite place in a bed. And last night, when I woke briefly to the sound of his muffled snoring, I was happy to know that he too seemed equally comfortable sleeping with me.

For a long time now, I've thought that the state of "falling in love" was strictly the province of youth. I'm happy to know that I may still have the capacity for these very deep feelings. One thing we learn on the road from youth to middle age is the difference between infatuation and love. I'm clearly infatuated with this person. Nobody knows where it's headed; if anywhere beyond the special times he and I have shared during the past month. And maybe it takes the fun out of it to speculate. Better to look back on those events with fondness, and a little bit of longing.

In the film "Something's Gotta Give," Diane Keaton plays a character that never gave the possibility of love a thought. She finds it, of course, because as everybody always says, "it'll happen when you least expect it, when you're not looking for it." Late in the film, having pushed aside all her fears of intimacy only to have her feelings hurt and her heart broken, she says, "You can't hide from love for the rest of your life because maybe it won't work out...I let somebody in and I had the time of my life."

Summer is officially over. First meeting, then having the pleasure of getting to know this man was the perfect end to a season that always seems to me like a celebration of new friends, beach walking, dolphin sightings, long evenings, warm nights, and the sounds of cicadas outside a bedroom window. I’m not sure what happened to my own fears of intimacy, but my defenses are disarmed. All I can say now is, I let somebody in and I had the time of my life."

Photograph by Wesley Taylor