The Layers

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.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
towards the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
‘Live in the layers,
not in 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.

Stanley Kunitz


In Praise of Walking

Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least
possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property,
triviality, to simply walk away.

That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations,
so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with
paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

There are walks in which we tread in the footsteps of others,
walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.

A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed,
while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along
the way.

There are things we will never see, unless we walk to them.

Walking is a mobile form of waiting.

What I take with me, what I leave behind, are of less importance
than what I discover along the way.

To be completely lost is a good thing on a walk.

The most distant places seem most accessible once one is on
the road.

Convictions, directions, opinions, are of less importance than
sensible shoes.

In the course of a walk, we usually find out something about our
companion, and this is true even when we travel alone.

When I spend a day talking I feel exhausted, when I spend it
walking I am pleasantly tired.

The pace of the walk will determine the number and variety of
things to be encountered, from the broad outlines of a mountain
range to a tit’s next among the lichen, and the quality of attention
that will be brought to bear upon them.

A rock outcrop, a hedge, a fallen tree, anything that turns us out
of our way, is an excellent thing on a walk.

Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digressions, all contribute
to the dislocation of a persistent self-interest.

Everything we meet is equally important or unimportant.

The most lonely places are the most lovely.

Walking is egalitarian and democratic; we do not become experts
at walking and one side of the road is as good as another.

Walking is not so much romantic as reasonable.

The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement.

Pools, walls, solitary trees, are natural halting places.

We loose the flavour of walking if it becomes too rare or too
extraordinary, if it turns into an expedition; rather it should be
quite ordinary, unexceptional, just what we do.

Daily walking, in all weathers, in every season, becomes a sort of
ground or continuum upon which the least emphatic occurrences
are registered clearly.

A stick of ash or blackthorn, through long use, will adjust itself
to the palm.

Of the many ways through a landscape, we can choose, on each
occasion, only one, and the project of a walk will be to remain
responsive, adequate, to the consequences of the choice we have
made, to confirm the chosen way rather than refuse the others.

One continues on a long walk not through effort of will but through

Storm clouds, rain, hail, when we have survived these we seem
to have taken on some of the solidity of rocks and trees.

A day, from dawn to dusk, is the natural span of a walk.

A dull walk is not without value.

To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience
we can have.

For the right understanding of a landscape, information
must come to the intelligence from all the senses.

Looking, singing, resting, breathing are all complementary
to walking.

Climbing uphill, the horizon grows wider, descending, the hills
gather round.

We can take a walk which is a sampling of different airs: the
invigorating air of the heights; the filtered air of a pine forest;
the rich air over ploughed earth.

We can walk between two places, and in so doing establish a link
between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like
introducing two friends.

There are walks on which I loose myself, walks which return me to
myself again.

Is there anything better that to be out, walking, in the
clear air?

Thomas A. Clark

At the Fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, pleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, the masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy, iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of cod and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the grey stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals…One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptists hymns.
I also sang ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgement.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear grey icy water… Back, behind us,
the dignified, tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded grey and blue-grey stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones.
above the stones and then the world
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark grey flame.
If you tasted it, it would taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Elizabeth Bishop

The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas

I have lived it, and lived it,
My nervous, luxury civilization,
My sugar loving nerves have battered me to pieces.

…Their idea of literature is hopeless.
Make them drink their own poetry!
Let them eat their gross novel, full of mud.

It’s quiet, just the fresh, chilly weather…and he
Gets up from his dead bedroom , and comes in here
And digs himself into the sofa.
He stays there up to two hours in the hole – and talks
– Straight into the large subjects, he faces up to everything
It’s … damnably depressing.
(That great lavatory coat…the cigarillo burning
In the little dish… And when he calls out: ‘Ha!’
Madness! – you no longer possess your own furniture.)

On my bad days (and I’m being broken
At this very moment) I speak of my ambitions…and he
Becomes intensely gloomy, with the look of something jugged,
Morose, sour, mouldering away, with lockjaw…

I grow coarser; and more modern (I, who am driven mad
By my ideas; who go nowhere;
Who dare not leave my front door, lest an idea…)
All right. I admit everything, everything!

Oh yes, the opera (ah, but the cinema)
He particularly enjoy it, enjoys it horribly, when someone’s ill
At the last minute; and they specially fly in
A new, gigantic, Dutch soprano. He wants to help her
With her arias. Old goat! Blasphemer!
He wants to help her with her arias!

No, I… go to the cinema.
I particularly like it when the fog is thick, the street
Is like a hole in an old coat, and the light is brown as laudanum,
…the fogs! the fogs! The cinemas
Where the criminal shadow-literature flickers over our faces,
The screen is spread out like a thundercloud – that bangs
And splashes you with acid…or lies derelict, with lighted waters in it,
And in the silence, drips and crackles – taciturn, luxurious.
…The drugged and battered Philistines
Are all around you in the auditorium…

And he… is somewhere else, in his dead bedroom clothes,
He wants to make me think his thoughts
And they will be enormous, dull – (just the sort
to keep away from)
…When I see his cigarillo, when I see it…smoking
And he wants to face the international situation…
Lunatic rages! Blackness! Suffocation!

– All this sitting about in cafés to calm down
Simply wears me out. And their idea of literature!
The idiotic cut of the stanzas; the novels, full up, gross.

I have lived it, and know too much.
My café nerves are breaking me
With black, exhausting information.

Rosemary Tonks

The Road Between Here and There

Here I heard the snorting of hogs trying to re-enter the underearth.
Here I came into the curve too fast, on ice, and touched the brake pedal
and sailed into the pasture.
Here I stopped the car and snoozed while two small children crawled all
over me.
Here I reread Moby Dick, skipping big chunks, skimming others, in a
single day, while Maud and Fergus fished.
Here I abandoned the car because of a clunk in the motor and hitchhiked
(which in those days in Vermont meant walking the whole way with
a limp) all the way to a garage, where I passed the afternoon with ex-
loggers who had stopped by to oil the joints of their artificial limbs
and talk.
Here a barn burned down to the snow. ‘Friction’ one of the ex-loggers said.
‘Friction?’ ‘Yup, the mortgage, rubbin’ against the insurance policy.’
Here I went eighty but was in no fear of arrest, for I was blessed –
speeding, trying to get home to see my children before they slept.
Here I bought speckled brown eggs with bits of straw shitted to them.
Here I brought home in the back seat two piglets who rummaged inside
the burlap sack like pregnancy itself.
Here I heard again on the car radio Handel’s Concerto transcribed for
harp and lute, which Ines played to me the first time, making me
want to drive after it and here it forever.
Here I sat on a boulder by the winter-steaming river and put my head in
my hands and considered time – which is next to nothing, merely what
vanishes, and yet can make ones elbows nearly pierce ones thighs.
Here I forgot how to sing in the old way and listened to frogs at dusk.
Here the local fortune teller took my hand and said ‘What is still possible
is inspired work, faithfulness to a few, and a last love, which, being
last, will be like looking up and seeing the parachute opening up in
a shower of gold.’
Here is the chimney standing up by itself and falling down, which tells
you you approach the end of the road between here and there.
Here I arrive there.
Here I must turn around and go back and on the way back look carefully
to the left and to right.
For when the spaces along the road between here and there are all used
up, that’s it.

Galway Kinnell


I like that room,
the warm one with the machines
where the woman folds her shed skins.

I hang in the broken ceiling, watching her,
barely distinguishable
from the cold water pipe
and the coiled power cable.

I watch her all winter:
her longlegged hands,
the glinting needles of fur at her nape,
her red warmness
drifting in mammaly billows.

And now I show myself;
Pour my flickering head
into her sac of air,
and slowly, willed against her own will,
her face rises like a rising moon
opening palely into mine,

and in the wide O’s of her eyes,
I see myself; my head like a big cut jewel,
the little watch-jewels of my eyes, yes,
my tongue the alive nerve of a rock,
and I feel her want,
a yearning almost,
as though for something already about to be lost,

and I offer myself.

James Lasdun