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David Rigsbee – Guest Editorial – On “The Abduction”
and First Meeting Stanley Kunitz

David Rigsbee profile LE P&W Feb 2020

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David Rigsbee is author of, most recently This Much I Can Tell You and Not Alone in My Dancing:  Essays and Reviews, both from Black Lawrence Press.  In addition to his eleven collections of poems, he has published critical books on the poetry of Joseph Brodsky and Carolyn Kizer and coedited Invited Guest:  An Anthology of Twentieth Century Southern Poetry.  Dante: The Paradiso will appear from Salmon Poetry in 2019.                       

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I have always loved Stanley Kunitz’ poem “The Abduction”  from his 1972 collection, The Testing Tree, mostly because, in spite of its vivid power and formal control, I don’t understand it.  Nor did Stanley, as he confesses in the first line, or any other readers.  Indeed, he avers that he may not want to understand what happened.  Why is that?  Perhaps because it would put Paid to a mystery and deflate wonder that has lasted decades.  The poem is inside out.  It looks for answers but ends with a question.  And not just any question, but one of such explosive scope that it passes from the real into the rhetorical like air into outer space, which is to say from local knowledge to the expectation of “rapture and dread.”  The poem concerns a man and wife, who, many years before underwent an inexplicable experience that marked them both.  The poem likewise is divided into “that timeless summer day” and “That was a long time ago.”  The first half goes like this:

Some things I do not profess
to understand, perhaps
not wanting to, including
whatever it was they did
with you or you with them
that timeless summer day
when you stumbled out of the wood,
distracted, with your white blouse torn
and a bloodstain on your skirt.
“Do you believe?” you asked.
Between us, through the years,
we pieced enough together
to make the story real:
how you encountered on the path
a pack of sleek, grey hounds,
trailed by a dumbshow retinue
in leather shrouds; and how
you were led, through leafy ways,
into the presence of a royal stag,
flaming in his chestnut coat,
who kneeled on a swale of moss
before you; and how you were borne
aloft in triumph through the green,
on his rack of budding horn,
till suddenly you found yourself alone
in a trampled clearing.

The bloodstain on her skirt clearly suggests rape, but the other images seem to come from myth, perhaps in the form of that myth-telling that goes through Dante’s dark wood to Boccaccio and on to the Shakespeare and the Romantics, including Romantic painters like Fuseli and David, as well as the Hawthorne of “The Maypole at Marymount,” where midnight rites draw a young woman into the woods.  Kunitz, after all, hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts and the woods were both real and full of secrets.  At the same time, the sleek hounds and shrouded figures bring us into the presence of “a royal stag,” whose image suggests not violation but something natural and harmonious. There is also the matter that the poem is recorded as a fact.  And that fact, many years later, still draws a line between the husband and wife.  The poet relaxes his early high literary style enough to lend credence to the authenticity of the encounter, but this leveling gives him the opportunity to introduce a counteractive boost in diction to a handful of phrases, like “a swale of moss” and “you were borne aloft in triumph.”  Clearly though, the most significant moment of this mysterious aftermath comes with her question, addressed to him:  “Do you believe?”  Believe what?  It is fundamental to the nature of belief that it opens the door to possibility.  Except for the wide question that goes something like “do you believe at all,” the question seems to spring from the event:  do you believe I could have a mythic experience myself?  And its entailment:  do you believe my account of that experience, not in what it meant, but that it took place? He doesn’t answer either version, rather pushes it further along:

Between us, through the years,
we pieced enough together
to make the story real.

Their bonding comes about by years of interpretation and suggestion, although a final interpretation is not given.  This, you might say, constitutes the character and specificity of their love.  The second section begins on an almost dismissive note, one that leads to another revelation:

That was a long time ago,
almost another age, but even now,
when I hold you in my arms,
I wonder where you are.
Sometimes I wake to hear
the engines of the night thrumming
outside the east bay window
on the lawn spreading to the rose garden.
You lie beside me in elegant repose,
a hint of transport hovering on your lips,
indifferent to the harsh green flares
that swivel through the room,
searchlights controlled by unseen hands.
Out there is a childhood country,
bleached faces peering in
with coals for eyes.
Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?

To wonder who it is you hold in your arms may come as shocking admission after (what we presume are) decades of living together as man and wife.  The “elegant repose,” the familiarity, we might say, of daily intimacy stands at counterpoint to the “hint of transport,” that still connects the wife to her mysterious journey years ago.  But even now, something like that stands ready to bring them, or perhaps others, to the sense of awe that can’t be broken down by rational inquiry:

Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.

The “childhood country” just beyond the window where they sleep suggests that the mythic world of which the wife once had an encounter is always and has always been all around them, although not noticed because “the shapes of things/ are shifting,” including themselves.  The poem’s final question blows open the the inner/outer, not to mention the wife/husband divide into a full-on gulf.  The epistemological question “what do we know?” has no traction now, except in providing a new set of terms, rapture and dread, each the inverse of the other, but both finally unexceptionable.  We have also moved from the possibilities inherent in the notions of believing to knowing.  And what we know, as Plato reminded us, is that we don’t know.  This is the same Plato who maintained that knowledge (“what do we know?”) is memory.


I had been well versed in Kunitz’ poems when I was in college, having been introduced to it by my teacher, the poet Carolyn Kizer, herself a devotee, as was her own teacher, Theodore Roethke.  But she considered Stanley a tutelary spirit, having worked with him when he taught at the University of Washington in the mid-‘50s and revered him, not only as a master in his own right, but as the colleague and mentor of her beloved Roethke.

Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitz

By the summer of ’71, Stanley was in his 66th year.  Little did anyone suspect that his career would continue another 35 years, including his deification as U.S. Poet Laureate when he was 95.  He seemed ageless even then and would go on to wear the dubious mantle of the Good Gray Poet, after 1977 being routinely compared to Yoda.  Carolyn said he was a magician in the kitchen:  “He just waves his spoon and says abracadabra over a bouillabaisse.  It’s perfect, of course.”  He was also a master gardener, whose green thumb in the backyard of his 12th Street brownstone transformed a scrappy lot into Eden.  Carolyn brought along a copy of his new collection, The Testing Tree, his first collection since the 1955 Selected Poems, and handed it over to me, “Ask him to sign it for you.”  We were greeted at the door by is wife, Elise Asher, who had provided the painting (with the title and author painted in) that was its cover, I noticed that the painting had been hung in the hallway.  I was surprised to see how large it was.  Elise suffered terribly from arthritis and maneuvered her arms from the elbows, as she hugged us.  Carolyn introduced me as a recent graduate, a poet, and translator of Russian poetry.  Stanley and I talked about Voznesensky, Akhmatova, and Mandelstam, and I told him about Brodsky, whom I had discovered while at Chapel Hill, but whose work was not yet widely known in the states.  Carolyn sat quietly on the sofa with Stanley during this exchange and smiled knowingly, as she often did, as if satisfied that an exchange was taking place.  Then she told him that I had edited her selected poems, and that seemed to make him regard me differently, as he knew the toils of editing.  Their affection for each other was obvious and genuine, and she was fulsome in her praise of his new collection.  I told Stanley that I had given a paper on his work at Johns Hopkins, and he met this news with a blunt “Thank you!” without inquiring further.  That was all right by me, as my theme concerned the singular pursuit of the missing father, in fact, an idée fixe on the theme of self-defeating authority.  There was a dark side to his poems and, to an extent, his person, as his polite but firm privacy suggested.  This side was all on view in his poems, however, and the new poems in The Testing Tree were no different.  By now, everyone who read poetry knew that the poet’s father had committed suicide before he was born.  What they didn’t know was how this event, once he began to understand it, turned him into a poet at once brilliantly attentive to cruelties toward innocence and personally ambivalent about his own talents at fathering and maintaining the domestic idea.  At the same time he considered his many students and acolytes as family, and neither his teaching nor his poems would disappoint, even if his private life hid limitations.  Carolyn, by contrast, had few secrets and no dark spring leveraging some private atrocity for inspiration.  She had decided early to transmute the private into the public using the musical protocols of the language, mindful that the traditional custodianship of the tradition, pace Dickinson, had fallen largely to male poets, and using the same tools as her male predecessors, turned the tradition back upon itself, keeping—and so reinforcing—the cadences, the classical architecture, the music possible with poetry.  While she and Stanley Kunitz saw eye-to-eye on matters of craft, what motivated them in their classical inclinations was different and telling in the difference.


Elise Asher

Stanley took us out into his garden, and, just as Carolyn had said it would be, the experience was one of botanical magic:  there was no sense that we were in the middle of Manhattan.  Rather, there was the feel that an exacting hand had intervened to make something fairly exotic and vivid grow at every turn. Back inside, we talked more about poetry, or rather, poets, for the two loved to trade gossip, as poets do.  It occurred to me that the mercies extended poets for their indiscretions were also self-exonerations for fantasies held, as well as actual peccadilloes committed. I think her reverence for Stanley, which was certainly also a reverence for good father figures, lay in part in her opinion that his own mastery of the implications and entailments of his foundational theme put him in touch with the springs of creativity, which is to say that it put him in touch with the wild:  “You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origins.”  It was that making of the wild into a garden that she admired in his work and the magical transport from the one to the other.  Before we left, he read for us the poem “The Abduction,” with its mythical, dream-like encounter between a beloved and some mysterious figures that force her, bloodied and disheveled, into asking defiantly and apropos of mystery, “Do you believe?”  The poem also seemed to conflate revelation with ravishment and concluded, with a Yeatsian echo, “What do we know/ beyond the rapture and the dread?”  Stanley inscribed the copy of The Testing Tree that Carolyn had brought along and passed it to me.  We departed with some ceremony, and Elise closed the door on 12th Street after us.

© David Rigsbee