Monday, August 08, 2005

Poem of the Week 8/8/2005: Touch Me

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gun-metal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Stanley Kunitz 1990

Good evening lovely PotW contacts (I couldn't think of what else to call you)! A thought to begin: Stanley Kunitz was 85 when he wrote this poem; he was born in 1905. I think his age is crucial to understanding the poem, as it deals so directly with disintegration, age, and memory. Thinking of even a 60 year old man writing this alters the meaning a bit. And, again, I know I am mixing speaker and poet, but it at least provides a constant frame of reference. If you see the speaker's age (or even gender) differently, feel free to write back with your thoughts!

At any rate, Kunitz opens the text with two whole entities that crumble. "Summer," something clear and bright, begins the poem. However, he immedately disjoints this idea, telling us that it is late. The first line is also important because it nods towards the nostalgia that is present throughout this work. This is, I think, a love poem. It is perhaps a cry-out love poem, but Kunitz weaves the affection and desperation together throughout the work. Diction that includes "wild," "torn", "trilling," "my heart," "marveled," "brave," and "thrash" serves to heighten the passion and urgency of the call. Of course, the speaker's age may have something to do with this urgency.

"Touch Me"'s second image is that of a word being plucked, fruit-like, and then scattering in the wind. That established, lines 8 and 9 are key; Kunitz writes that "It is my heart that's late, / it is my heart that's flown." In other words, his heart, like a late summer, is something (potentially) ripe and bright and pure that has not come to fruit. His heart, too, is crumbling like chalk.

Just as the opening images of the poem are of loss/disintegration, the bulk of the poem is chock-full of death images. The sky is gun-colored, and he "stakes" his garden down as if it was going to escape somewhere. Furthermore, the poem's central metaphor, the garden crickets, typifies this cycle of destruction. Their presence within the poem, however, reveals somewhat more about the narrator's hopes and fears than do the other entropic elements. These crickets, the speaker notes, will certainly die soon. They have only one season to live (an observation perfectly aligned with the opening statement, "Summer is late, my heart."), and yet they trill away. They live thanks to a tri-pel-et chugging "desire, desire, desire." Evidently, Kunitz sees several imporant things about these crickets. Both their "crusty shells" and their short life span allow him to empathize with them; they are ephemeral shells, as is he. Secondly, they sing nonetheless. Their desire to live, to mate, to whatever, keeps them going.

For Kunitz, I think it's his desire for his wife's love, body, and soul. Or hers for him. Their shared desire. I love the howling quality of the final stanza - the wind and trees are beating at the windows, death is certainly out there, but he does not need to be a shell. He can be again if she will only touch him. Desire will anchor him to life and identity again, just as it did for the tiny unflappable crickets. Oh me I love this poem. It's quite beautiful. There are several ways to read the question "Darling do you remember / the man you married?". He could be assuming that she does, in which case the inquiry is a triumphant sound. On another note, it could be the tender wail of despair, born of he not knowing whether she *does* remember or not. Or maybe it's neither of those things - it's up to you to decide.

Before I go, I have a couple of notes. I wanted to mention something my dad told me about emotional memory that is part of the reason this poem is so explosive to me. He said that emotional memory has no sense of time, so if you get truly triggered, that's it! You're back exactly when you felt the first emotion, experiencing it again. This poem somehow makes me care for the speaker in very few words, because here, again, is a very real person. One who hurts and loves and fears... do any of you remember the "Flowers" by Wendy Cope edition of the PotW? I still believe that seeing someone's fears can make them empathetic. And this man seems so real and vulnerable. This love poem is tender because it fears death and entropy and old age and, most of all, a total loss of the speaker's desire for his wife.

And one more thing: I didn't mean to sound embittered and whiny in the last PotW - I was just feeling a little consumed after an extremely long night's work. Though I do like updating some of my friends/family who I haven't talked to in a long time about things. For now, I hope you enjoy the new blog format and I am done chatting your ears off. Thanks for reading, and Good Night!!!



Safa said...

I think this poem says a lot about the way "love" (and the expression thereof) changes as we age. Oh, and what if the wife is dead? Maybe that's why the speaker has lost his will to live. Perhaps the only thing keeping him around is the desire to find an answer to his final question, but because that is an impossibility, he's doomed to suffer out the rest of his days in patient longing until finally he too passes on? Man, that is sad...but maybe beautiful too, that through it all his love still endures. Maybe I'm just in a macabre mood because I have to go to work soon, I dunno ;P What do you guys think?

P.S. Dude,Mad props for converting to the Blog format Sarah! This is so much easier! :)

Anonymous said...

What exactly makes you think that the speaker has lost his will to live? Doesn't he close by appealing to life and wanting to experience and live again? I don't see where at all this is coming from...

safa said...


Perhaps I should replace "will" with "desire". The fact that he does close by "appealing to life and wanting to experience and live again" implies that he's currently lacking in that respect, right? Or why else would he be questing for it? Perhaps a better way for me to phrase it would be that he hasn't lost his will to live, but rather the desire that motivates that will, and, having recognised this, wishes to regain that desire, so that he may truly live again? Oh, and by "lost his will to live" I don't exactly mean "wishes to die"...I think there is a difference. I hope that clarifies it a little! bye!