Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The boy in the white flannel gown

Halley’s Comet

by Stanley Kunitz
Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been doing much reading or writing lately.  Life, with its myriad of methods, getting in the way.  I woke up this morning thinking about this poem and this is not to suggest that I’m a big reader of poetry.  Oh, I try.  I see a poem once in a while and am motivated to buy the book.  The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (1910-2006) is the latest example of that.  Let’s face it:  poetry is not an “easy read.”  It makes you pause; it makes you think.  The poems in this collection are perhaps more accessible but nevertheless, masterful.

If I could write only one thing as good and true as “Halley’s Comet” in my life, I would be contented.  In several short stanzas, Kunitz touches on everything, doesn’t he?  The wonder of life, the insistence of religion, the simple existence of a boy:  his supper, his flannel gown, his throbbing lack of a father.  Kunitz’s own father committed suicide just six weeks before his birth.  His stepfather died when he was fourteen and these absences are a common touchstone in his work.  To me, that’s art.  Making personal the great mysteries, in such a way that they become a bit less mysterious to everyone else.  Even if just for a moment, just for the length of a novel.  Or a poem. 

I’m thinking this morning about what my “themes” are; what are the touchstones to which I return time and again for inspiration?  Can I tap into that awestruck child, his simple yearning as he waits for the streak of light in the sky?


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka