Sunday, September 11, 2011


My first reaction Sept. 11 was, of course, shock and dismay. And then I had the curious feeling that I had been through all this before. In the mid-30s of the past century, when Hitler's tanks and storm troopers were sweeping through Europe and the cities were being leveled one by one, it seemed as though civilization itself was doomed. The poem I wrote then, Night Letter, speaks for me now as it did then.

Night Letter

The urgent letter that I try to write

Night after night to you to whom I turn,
The staunchless word, my language of wound,
Begins to stain the page. Here in my room
With the unkenneled need, the Faustian Dog
That chews my penitential bones, I hope
And do not hope, I pray and mock my prayer,
Twisting my coils, this dangling life of mine,
Now twelve years come of age, and me unpleased
With all my ways, my very little ones,
My parts, my lines, unless you hold them dear.
Where is your ministry? I thought I heard
A piece of laughter break upon the stair
Like glass, but when I wheeled around I saw
Disorder, in a tall magician's hat,
Keeping his rabbit-madness crouched inside,
Sit at my desk and scramble all the news.
The strangest things are happening. Christ! The dead,
Pushing the membrane from their face, salute
The dead and scribble slogans on the walls;
Phantoms and phobias mobilize, thronging
The roads; and in the Bitch's streets the men
Are lying down, great crowds with fractured wills
Dumping the shapeless burden of their lives
Into the rivers where the motors flowed.

Of those that stood in my doorway, self-accused,
Besmeared with failure in the swamps of trade,
One put a gun in his examiner's hand,
Making the judgment loud; another squats

Upon the asylum floor and plays with toys,

Like the spiral of a souls balanced on a stone,

Or a new gadget for slicing off the thumb;

The rest whirl in the torment of our time.
What have we done to them that what they are
Shrinks from the touch of what they hoped to be?
"Pardon," I plead, clutching the fragile sleeve
Of my poor father's ghost returned to howl
His wrongs. I suffer the twentieth century,
The nerves of commerce wither in my arm; 

Violence shakes my dreams; I am cold,
Chilled by the persecuting wind abroad,
The oratory of the rodent's tooth,
The slaughter of the blue-eyed open towns,
And principle disgraced, and art denied.
My dear, is it too late for peace, too late
For men to gather at the wells to drink
The sweet water; too late for fellowship
And laughter at the forge; too late for us
To say, "Let us be good to one another"?
The lamps go singly out; the valley sleeps;
I tend the last light shining on the farms
And keep for you the thought of love alive,
As scholars dungeoned in an ignorant age
Tended the embers of the Trojan fire.
Cities shall suffer siege and some shall fall,
But man's not taken. What the deep heart means,
Its message of the big, round, childish hand,
Its wonder, its simple lonely cry,
The bloodied envelope addressed to you,
Is history, that wide and mortal pang.

from: The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz.

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