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Archive for the ‘Touch Me’ Category

 

Touch Me

by Stanley Kunitz

 

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.

 

 

I’m going to try to write a post about a poem called “Touch Me” without mentioning our long months of physical distancing and bumping elbows to say hello and pantomiming hugs to say goodbye; without mentioning how we are all old people now, isolated and longing to be touched; without mentioning the parallels between the forty years since the poet spoke his words of love (“Summer is late, my heart”) and the biblical forty years of wandering in the desert which is how long it feels some days being separated from people we love because of the coronavirus.

 

Instead I’m going back thirty-three years, to my wedding day. The summer I got married cicadas came out of a seventeen-year hibernation to sing, mate, lay eggs and die, all in a few short weeks. They covered lawns and sidewalks with their toe-sized shells and filled the air with their shrieks and unexpected dive-bombings. Outdoors you had to shout to be heard and watch your step lest you crunch one underfoot. I didn’t know if the cicada swarm was a good omen—they live to love!—or bad—life is brutally short, you’ll just have babies and die!— or as Kunitz puts it

 

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done.

 

But it didn’t matter. Something was happening. Something elemental and big. As it happens, the day of our wedding was brutally hot and marked by an epic thunderstorm, so between the downpour of rain and locusts, my sense of—what was it?—wildness? freedom? possibility?—let’s call it my animal sense—was stronger than the stifling strictures of wedding traditions.

 

This poem brings back that feeling with force. Being in nature, particularly before a storm, the animal parts wake up. Notice the speaker in the poem is feeling the old zing-a-ding-ding after being in the garden. Not after sitting at his computer watching old-people porn or noticing a beautiful young girl in her thong at the beach or swiping through Instagram pictures of hybrid beings with duck lips and hair extensions. He’s on his knees, digging earth. Crickets are whirring, the dark clouds forecast the heavy rain that will come later as he lies in bed with his wife.

 

If you didn’t notice just how sexy this poem is, listen to the poet read it. Yes, he is a very old man. Doesn’t matter. As he reads, the thrashing willow branches turn into thrashing bodies and the creaking house timbers signal a creaking mattress or maybe even creaking joints, given his age.

 

 

 

*

 

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) had a tough start in his very long life. Weeks before he was born, his father, a bankrupt dressmaker, committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid in a public park. Kunitz had two older sisters and a mother who worked, unusual for the time, as a dress designer and manufacturer. His mother remarried, and Kunitz’s stepdad too, came to an unfortunate end. After declaring bankruptcy and learning he was being investigated for concealing assets in his dry goods store, he had a heart attack while hanging curtains. Kunitz was fourteen.

 

Kunitz moved out of the house the next year, worked for a butcher, then for a newspaper, saving money to go to Harvard. He graduated with highest honors in English and philosophy, and went on to get a masters degree. He was foiled in his attempt to get a PhD by an administrator who old him that no one at Harvard wanted to be taught by a Jew. His “revenge” was becoming, later in life, a beloved teacher and mentor who influenced a generation of poets, including James Wright and Louise Gluck.

 

After completing his education, he worked as a reporter and editor. During World War II he registered as a conscientious objector (he was denied) and sent to serve as a noncombatant at a base in Washington in charge of information and education.

 

Kunitz taught at many colleges, including Bennington, Vassar, New School, Yale, Princeton, SUNY, eventually teaching writing for eighteen years at Columbia.

 

He married three times and had a daughter with wife number two. His third wife, to whom “Touch Me” was written, was artist Elise Asher. Theirs was a long marriage. They split their time between New York and Provincetown, where he was famous for his garden.

 

Kunitz published more than twenty books of poetry, received the Pulitzer Prize and became U.S poet laureate for the second time at age 95.

 

 

 

 

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