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Live in the Layers

Searching for poems this past week to use in our upcoming prompts, I came upon Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers.” It is a poem I have read often and heard him read in person. It is a poem that invites multiple readings and – like Kunitz himself – “Though I lack the art / to decipher it” fully, I continue to try.

…In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I don’t know that Stanley would have agreed with me, but the layers and litter of the poem always make me think of the garden and my compost pile. “Leaf litter” is the leaves, twigs and pieces of bark that have fallen to the ground and make up an important component of healthy soil. Stanley was well known for his gardening and I’m sure his compost pile was an important part of it. Compost is itself a place of transformation. There are creatures that live in the litter and the litter certainly encourages life and growth.

But that voice from the clouds advises not to live in the litter but in the layers.

Yesterday, I took the photo shown at the top of this post because it looked like the clouds were in layers. If the litter is the earth, then there are many layers above it going up into the sky and far beyond our own planet.

Listen to Stanley read the poem, and if you have your own interpretation, please post a comment here.

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