Monday, 29 July, was the birthday of the poet Stanley Kunitz, who was born in Massachusetts in 1905. Today is the birthday of my father, my namesake although he always went by Brooks, our name in common. He was born in southern Ohio, in the Appalachian hills east of Cincinnati in 1911.
Stanley was poet laureate of our country twice, the last time in 2000 when he was 95. He lived to be 101 and published his last book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects On A Century In The Garden, shortly before he died. My father was a stationary boiler engineer and didn’t quite make it to his 73d birthday. He also liked to garden.
When thinking of these two men, I believe they might well have had something to say to one another, despite their backgrounds and differences. As a poet, Stanley had a special way with words. Brooks was not a man of letters, but could certainly string words together. He could also sing which he frequently did in the car, since he didn’t particularly care for what was on the radio back in the 1950s. He seemed uncomfortable with silence and unfortunately didn’t appear to have any control over his chatter which was almost nonstop. Most of his stories were of people who were long gone but who had imprinted themselves on him as a boy. From a child’s perspective, the tales appeared to me to have had no beginning or end, just a running narrative that made little sense or had any relevance to what was happening in my life.
Now as I am only a few years short of his lifespan, I am finally beginning to appreciate the hold that his past had on him. Throughout our lives, we were two totally foreign mysteries to one another. As a result, we were pretty well estranged over most of my adulthood. I was not quite 40 when a fatal stroke felled him in the kitchen in front of my mother. He lingered a few days, however, tethered to machines and tended to by strangers. As I watched his monitor starting to indicate that a flat line was soon approaching, I told my mother that the time was near. The night before I had spent alone with him, talking uninterrupted for once but probably only to myself since I don’t think he was “there” any longer. I got some things off my chest and asked him repeatedly why he seemed to have chosen to be such a difficult individual. The questions were obviously more important than any answers might have been. It did seem strange, though, when I realized I was conducting the monologue this time without him hijacking the conversation once again.
Unlike my father, Stanley was an academic and dealt with ideas, language, and esthetics. He also would undoubtedly have been a mysterious foreign presence to my father. Stanley once said in an interview, “The poem comes in the form of a blessing–‘like rapture breaking on the mind.’…Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.” I doubt if my father ever read a single poem in his entire life.
Before Stanley died, he had written a haunting poem called The Layers in which he describes his long journey and the many people who had been his friends but who were now gone. It is a poem of endurance and the triumph of the human will to endure. In it, he steps back from his own existence and sees change and his willingness to adapt as the way he has coped with loss as well as triumph.
“I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.”
Both men had lived rather remarkable lives, albeit quite different. I always thought of my father as a diamond in the rough. He was born on a hillside farm, the last of a large family, where education was not exactly valued. It was hard work with little to show for it at the end of the season. He told me once that the final blow that broke up the family and sent them on their own diaspora came when lightening struck the barn after the crops had been harvested. Everything, including the horses used to plow the fields, was lost, except the bills. Thus began his own journey out of the hills in search of gainful employment but with little training and a scant education.
Before he married my mother and was working on the railroad, he had wandered to California about the same time that Steinbeck’s Joad family was making its way out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. He didn’t find any miracles there, either, and returned to Ohio in search of his own identity. Rejected by the Army at the start of WWII due to scars left behind by childhood typhoid fever, he struggled with his own definition of manhood as he was forced to rethink his life. During the war, he became a welder at Curtis-Wright working on the aircraft assembly lines. Later, he transformed himself again by becoming a railroad man, but left because of labor unrest and the long hours away from home. My mother and he would eventually find themselves in Columbus, Ohio, where he got a job as an oilman on the large boilers that powered the huge wheels in the water pumping station. From there, he went to night school and was tutored by mentors who helped him get the credentials he needed to become an engineer and in charge of a crew that kept the water flowing into the homes and businesses in central Ohio.
Whereas Stanley dealt with “intellectual things,” which was the title of his first book of poetry in 1930, my dad was all nuts and bolts, although I remember him leafing through a few Zane Grey westerns from time to time. Brooks was not a reader and remained suspicious and disdainful of academic learning all his life. He was a man who had pulled himself up by his boot strings and saw little worth in anything that was not practical.
On the surface, I would have to do a lot of stretching to see any common ground for these men to share, except perhaps a conversation over their mutual love of gardening. My dad always had a garden, even if it had to be blocks away from the small patch of green where we lived. It would be fun to hover about listening in and occasionally asking a question, especially of my father now that I’m old enough to understand him better and perhaps have the right questions I was incapable of asking when he was still hoeing in his potato patch.
Stanley’s ideas about gardening were on a different level, perhaps, which might have eluded Brooks’ understanding. But there was something, however slight, in common. Brooks might not have fully comprehended what Stanley was saying but I think he would have felt at home with the sentiments:
“It’s the way things are, death and life inextricably bound to
each other. One of my feelings about working the land is that
I am celebrating a ritual of death and resurrection. Every spring
I feel that I am never closer to the miraculous than when I am
grubbing the soil.”
With the theme of death and resurrection on his mind, the preacher who spoke at my dad’s funeral read from Psalms 121,
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills
From whence cometh my help.”
My father had come from the hill country and it was as much him as he was it. It was his connection with the woods and the good earth that kept him grounded in so many ways, especially when the fast-paced symbols of modernity perplexed and overwhelmed him. The changes he had seen in his life seem to have eventually taken their toll, however, and blocked his access to new ways of understanding what was going on all around him. He left this world angry and unresolved.
Stanley, on the other hand, had come from and lived in another world. He was a sweet soul and not at all afraid of accommodating change. In the end, he knew it was part of that same idea of resurrection that transformed him.
In The Layers, he says:
“’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.”
Happy birthday to two dissimilar yet memorable men from another time.