I haven’t dreamed in months. My brain is numb with thinking, burned-out, gutted. I wake each morning to only the hoary, fragmented recollection of the pages I was reading before I fell into sleep, adrift in the glow of the kitchen light. I know that dreams had flickered and doused like lights in an electric storm, but they are impossibly distant (magic) lanterns and the mind’s nights are uneventful. So I have turned again to my dreamer, Stanley Kunitz.
Kunitz makes it into every important anthology and yet I’ve never heard his name murmured by graduates of verse in any New York City dive. Kunitz died in 2006 at the age of 100 and he racked up every important literary award and position along the way. His honors include the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the State Poet of New York, the Pulitzer Prize, and the United States Poet Laureate. But no one seems to be writing or talking about this contemporary of Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens etc. whose wide-reaching influence includes Theodore Roethke, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and so forth and so on until the early 21st century.
Kunitz’s ‘The Testing-Tree’ is one of his most visionary poems. In it, he progresses from a reflection on his childhood to, as he states, a recurring dream. In future, I will likely provide some entryways into the poem . But for now, I think it should only be read and read again. All I will say is listen to the voice. This is a voice that has lived. A voice that has loved and hurt, hurt and plunged, plunged and risen. It is an authoritative and chilling voice; a human voice whose heart ‘breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.’ His is a voice that has dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.
Here’s the poem:
On my way home from school up tribal Providence Hill past the Academy ballpark where I could never hope to play I scuffed in the drainage ditch among the sodden seethe of leaves hunting for perfect stones rolled out of glacial time into my pitcher's hand; then sprinted lickety- split on my magic Keds from a crouching start, scarcely touching the ground with my flying skin as I poured it on for the prize of the mastery over that stretch of road, with no one no where to deny when I flung myself down that on the given course I was the world's fastest human.
Around the bend that tried to loop me home dawdling came natural across a nettled field riddled with rabbit-life where the bees sank sugar-wells in the trunks of the maples and a stringy old lilac more than two stories tall blazing with mildew remembered a door in the long teeth of the woods. All of it happened slow: brushing the stickseed off, wading through jewelweed strangled by angel's hair, spotting the print of the deer and the red fox's scats. Once I owned the key to an umbrageous trail thickened with mosses where flickering presences gave me right of passage as I followed in the steps of straight-backed Massassoit soundlessly heel-and-toe practicing my Indian walk.
Past the abandoned quarry where the pale sun bobbed in the sump of the granite, past copperhead ledge, where the ferns gave foothold, I walked, deliberate, on to the clearing, with the stones in my pocket changing to oracles and my coiled ear tuned to the slightest leaf-stir. I had kept my appointment. There I stood in the shadow, at fifty measured paces, of the inexhaustible oak, tyrant and target, Jehovah of acorns, watchtower of the thunders, that locked King Philip's War in its annulated core under the cut of my name. Father wherever you are I have only three throws bless my good right arm. In the haze of afternoon, while the air flowed saffron, I played my game for keeps-- for love, for poetry, and for eternal life-- after the trials of summer.
In the recurring dream my mother stands in her bridal gown under the burning lilac, with Bernard Shaw and Bertie Russell kissing her hands; the house behind her is in ruins; she is wearing an owl's face and makes barking noises. Her minatory finger points. I pass through the cardboard doorway askew in the field and peer down a well where an albino walrus huffs. He has the gentlest eyes. If the dirt keeps sifting in, staining the water yellow, why should I be blamed? Never try to explain. That single Model A sputtering up the grade unfurled a highway behind where the tanks maneuver, revolving their turrets. In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking. It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn. I am looking for the trail. Where is my testing-tree? Give me back my stones!