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Lesser Seductions: Night Letters

Thursday, August 6, 2009 Leave a Comment

As we lead up to our fall production of The Lesser Seductions Of History, I'll be posting things that inspired the play's writing or echo its concerns. I heard Stanley Kunitz read from his poem Night Letters in the days before the second Iraq War, at a Not In Our Name gathering during a blizzard in Manhattan. He was in his late nineties then, reading a poem written during Hitler's rise, and craned up to the mike to deliver his poem; and the excerpt I give here lives at the center of The Lesser Seductions Of History, especially those last six lines:

I suffer the twentieth century,
The nerves of commerce wither in my arm;
Violence shakes my dreams; I am cold,
Chilled by the persecuting wind abroad,
The oratory of the rodent’s tooth,
The slaughter of the blue-eyed open towns,
And principle disgraced, and art denied.

My dear, is it too late for peace, too late
For men to gather at the wells to drink
The sweet water; too late for fellowship
And laughter at the forge; too late for us
To say, “Let us be good to one another”?
The lamps go singly out; the valley sleeps;
I tend the last light shining on the farms
And keep for you the thought of love alive,
As scholars dungeoned in an ignorant age
Tended the embers of the Trojan fire.
Cities shall suffer siege and some shall fall,
But man’s not taken. What the deep heart means,
Its message of the big, round, childish hand,
Its wonder, its simple lonely cry,
The bloodied envelope addressed to you,
Is history, that wide and mortal pang.


  • rob said:  

    Beautiful. I remember Stanley Kunitz tending his garden, moving gently among the perennials. As a poet, he moves in the same way, as do you.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Thank you, Rob. Touch Me is my other Kunitz favorite:

    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 gunmetal 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.