Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Word

Just finished reading "A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination." And am about to start: "America in White, Black, and Gray: A History of the Stormy 1960s."

The first book has the epigraph:

We learn, as the thread plays out, that we belong
Less to what flatters us than to what scars.

--Stanley Kunitz, "The Dark and the Fair"

Kunitz's poem isn't really about an era, though; it's actually a personal poem, about an anonymous "Dark Lady" (which I learned from an interview with him that I read online). I find the whole poem profound, but especially the last line: "Who taught me the serpent's word, but yet the word." Such a complicated thing to fully understand and accept: "The Word" -- Knowledge, which is all there is -- comes in many, often painful and frightening, forms.

A roaring company that festive night;
The beast of dialectic dragged his chains,
Prowling from chair to chair is the smoking light,
While the snow hissed against the windowpanes.

Our politics, our science, and our faith
Were whiskey on the tongue; I, being rent
By the fierce divisions of our time, cried death
And death again, and my own dying meant.

Out of her secret life, the griffin-land
Where ivory empires build their stage she came,
Putting in mine her small impulsive hand,
Five-fingered gift, and the palm not tame.

The moment clanged: beauty and terror danced
To the wild vibration of a sister-bell,
Whose unremitting stroke discountenanced
The marvel that the mirrors blazed to tell.

A darker image took this fairer form
Who once, in the purgatory of my pride,
When innocence betrayed me in a room
Of mocking elders, swept handsome to my side,

Until we rose together, arm in arm,
And fled together back into the world.
What brought her now, in the semblance of the warm,
Out of cold spaces, damned by colder blood?

That furied woman did me grievous wrong,
But does it matter much, given our years?
We learn, as the thread plays out, that we belong
Less to what flatters us than to what scars;

So, freshly turning, as the turn condones,
For her I killed the propitiatory bird,
Kissing her down. Peace to her bitter bones,
Who taught me the serpent's word, but yet the word.

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