Touching Snakes in Stanley Kunitz’s Garden

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

Stanley Kunitz was well into his nineties when Genine Lentine collaborated with him on a luminous book about poetry and gardening. The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden came out in 2005 and it includes interviews Lentine did with Kunitz, mostly about his long-tended garden in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It’s a deceptively simple book, laced with photographs of the man in his garden taken by Marnie Crawford Samuelson.

I was unfamiliar with Kunitz, a poet laureate and winner of the National Book Award who received most of his acclaim late in life. But Bishop Tim Whitaker, who is a wealth of solid recommendations, suggested this book to me and I was grateful for the opportunity to spend time with the poet, even if I’m not much of a gardener.

What stands out in these interviews is the clarity of Kunitz’s mind and the depth of his reflections, giving the lie to stereotypes about the inevitability of mental decline. It’s not just wisdom, but his sharp observations about the connection between planning the garden and designing a poem. He also retains a rich capacity for reflection that show up throughout, as in this passage:

The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other frameworks, I call wilderness. And it’s very much like wilderness in that its beasts are not within our control. It resists the forms, the limits, the restraints, that civilization itself imposes. I’ve always felt, even as a child, that there was the decorum of the social structure, the family structure, and so forth, and there was the wild permissiveness of the inner life. I learned I could go anywhere in my inner life. (87)

He wanders back to early in his life and an included poem, ‘The Portrait,’ hints at old wounds:

My mother never forgave my father

for killing himself,

especially at such an awkward time

and in a public park,

that spring

when I was waiting to be born.

She locked his name in her deepest cabinet

and would not let him out,

though I could hear him thumping.

And yet such memories are only part of a larger landscape that is suffused with beauty. He sees two garden snakes entwined in a tree and goes to stroke them, feeling the quiver in their bodies. The resulting poem, ‘The Snakes of September,’ gives the book its title:

After all,

we are partners in this land,

co-signers of a covenant.

At my touch the wild

braid of creation

trembles.

The book won me over but I have to admit that there was a part of me that resisted it and it had to do with my own fears about aging. The cover photo, and many of those inside, shows Kunitz as a severely stooped old man walking among the plots in his garden. Something about the photo struck me as offensive—the sight of such frailty in relation to the garden’s beauty. But why?

For the same reason it’s difficult to see pictures of myself these days. Who do I think I am still trying to do youthful things? I’ll always be the old man crashing the party now. And it will only grow worse.

But reading the book, and sensing the warm humanity behind the words, I came to see Kunitz as part of the beauty, too. His frailty is the frailty we’ve always had in the wilderness of this world. We’re always vulnerable, never adequately equipped, moving awkwardly through a scene beyond our own creation. And yet we are a part of things. Tenders of things. Partners in this land with all its trembling creatures.

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