Searching for Stanley Kunitz’s Garden
Nell Boeschenstein on a Poetry Pilgrimage to Provincetown
For Cleopatra Mathis.
The road to Provincetown is a dead-end street. The spit of land it sits on, so slim there’s only one way in and one out, perched as it is like a ball at the tip of a seal’s nose. Looking at the Cape on a map, the peninsula resembles a fish hook tossed out into the open Atlantic by the mainland to see what proverbial fish in the sea might find available for the reeling in and keeping. Cape Cod thus turns in on itself and Provincetown faces not open ocean but Plymouth, Massachusetts, home to the rock where the Mayflower landed in 1620 and the pilgrims disembarked to begin building the idea of a new England. This is Pilgrim country.
I was playing pilgrim.
It was Memorial Day weekend and, wanting to maximize the extra leisure time at my disposal, I had escaped Philadelphia, where I had been logging 12-hour days in front of a screen and eating too much instant shells and cheese after 8pm. For company, I’d invited a man I was seeing, Josh, a documentary filmmaker from Manhattan by way of Kentucky. We’d met through friends a number of years back but only begun dating a few months earlier, traveling between our respective cities on weekends as we tried to get a better feel for each other. This three-day weekend had seemed a good opportunity to make some progress in that department, so we made a plan to get some sun, some beach, some fried fish, and to do something about which I’d recently gotten a bee in my bonnet: pay my respects the late poet Stanley Kunitz by visiting his summer cottage and garden, neither of which are open to the public.
Ever since my college poetry professor had passed around a copy of Kunitz’s “Robin Redbreast,” he’d become a poet to whose work I found myself returning over the years, often finding in it whatever solace I sought at this point or that as my early twenties gave way to my late-twenties and those to thirty and so on. In “Robin Redbreast” Kunitz describes an encounter with the “dingiest bird you ever saw” and relates how he picked up the injured animal and felt its heart throbbing in his hand. He lifts the bird up, encouraging it to fly off, only to discover a hole in its head “where the hunter’s brand / had tunneled out his wits,” and through that hole, “the cold flash of the blue / unappeasable sky.” I remember taking the photocopy home and pinning it to my bulletin board, never hearing the phrase “like a hole in my head” quite the same way again.
When the time came, that same poetry professor had hosted a dinner at her house for her graduating seniors. For each us she made a small bag of souvenirs, complete with a line of poetry she said reminded her of us. In my bag was a line from Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,” that said, “[N]o doubt the next chapter / in my book of transformations / is already written. / I am not done with my changes.” It’s a poem I now give to my own students in the introductory creative writing class I teach, and when I read it aloud for them, I pause a little longer at the end of it than I do with other poems, wondering whether these children on the cusp of adulthood understand yet what change means.
Had I considered it, it probably would have dawned on me that Memorial Day weekend in Provincetown might be a madhouse, which it was. Driving into town on that gray, misty Friday evening there were women everywhere, swarming the town like ants on honey. They filled sidewalks, walked abreast down the middle of streets, hung from windows, congregated on balconies, on lawns, outside of bars, in couples and larger groups. It was a joyous if alternate universe, and Josh and I stared at each other wide-eyed bafflement, wondering what it was we’d just driven into.
A quick google as we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic waiting for the walls of women to part and make way for slow-moving vehicles, revealed the mystery: “Women’s Weekend,” known more colloquially as “Baby Dyke Weekend” because it’s marketed to the under-35 set.
Apparently, every Memorial Day, lesbians flock to Provincetown by the thousands. Think David Byrne’s “Independence Day”: Hey mister, hey lady, hey sisters, walking hand in hand, We’ll be lovers, in the open, We’ll be lovers on Independence Day. Hand in hand, hand in hand, hand in hand, hand in hand . . . The song sounds like a block party in the name of human love and I smiled, thinking how the town slogan, the “Birthplace of American Liberty,” had become more apt than its founders could have ever anticipated.
Aside from boasting the highest proportion of same-sex couples of any zip code in the country, Provincetown is also an artists’ colony. That’s what attracted Kunitz and his third wife, Elise Asher, a painter, to the town in the late 1950s. When the vibrancy of the artistic community they’d initially come for appeared to be waning, he co-founded the Fine Arts Work Center. His love of Provincetown’s seclusion and his need for the vibrancy of its cultural life reflects the push and pull he felt between the rural and urban. While he believed “art withers without fellowship,” he also said that he was more at peace with himself when “in daily contact with the natural world.” For the first half of his life, he ping-ponged back and forth between Manhattan and farms in Connecticut and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Then, having ponged again back to Manhattan in 1952, he fell in with the group of painters who would introduce him to Asher and soon to Provincetown. The couple spent their first summer there together in 1957 and began splitting the year between Cape Cod and New York, between urban life and the “deep pulsing in the universe” Kunitz wrote that he could hear from his Provincetown garden.
Teaching was what allowed Kunitz to resolve this ambivalence for himself. The academic schedule allowed him the flexibility to cultivate lives both inside and outside of an urban center. Although he arrived to it late, teaching was, by all accounts, his calling, and he eventually landed at Columbia University where he remained for 22 years. You see the fruits of this labor in the poetry departments of colleges and universities across the country which seem to be staffed to a disproportionate degree with his former students or students of former students. When asked by the Paris Review in 1982, “If there are few serious readers of poetry, how is its light disseminated?” he replied, “Largely it’s disseminated among the young. A sizable fraction of the youth in our universities read poetry, hear poets and are excited by them . . . Many of these students will go out in the world and never read another book of poems, but if only a fraction of them retain their interest, it will be a significant change for the better.”
Since graduating college, I had proven a case study in the former. It had been a decade at least since I’d written a poem and just as long since I’d devoted any serious attention to reading the stuff. In this way, the trip to Provincetown was the product of a life-crisis that had left me aching to regain lost time. Two years earlier, at 31, I had had a prophylactic double mastectomy as a result of the BRCA-1 gene mutation that puts those who carry it at an increased risk of reproductive cancers, the fallout of which had left me reeling with depression and the distinct anxiety that both time and life were slipping through my fingers. My mind had been preoccupied and my attention entirely elsewhere during years considered critical for women who might want a family. As a result, I had lately been experiencing regret in palpable, unproductive ways, wanting desperately to go back, to do things differently, to make better choices: I wanted rewind, to stop playing around at 26, get serious by 27, married by 29, long-settled by 33.
The forecast for Saturday was not good: rain or a chance of it all day, but weather is no obstacle for true pilgrims. We started out down Commercial, the main thoroughfare along the water. There are only two streets of any consequence in Provincetown—Commercial and Bradford—and they intersect with each other at the ocean on one end and Route 6 out of town at the other, creating a loop around which you could travel forever. It is literally impossible to get lost. On its far ends, Commercial is residential, but towards the center it’s crowded with art galleries peddling watercolor oceanscapes and sex stores hawking leather harnesses and briefs with attached dildos.
I hadn’t come prepared. I didn’t know where Kunitz’s house was and hadn’t bothered to track down an address. I was relying on a memory of a photograph I had seen once, an image I recalled of a modest, grey shingled cottage at the crest of a small hill on a quiet street, set back from the road and fronted with an abundant garden of hydrangea, meadow rue, daylilies, hostas, and lavender. Our plan was to walk Commercial until I saw a house and garden that matched the memory. If we couldn’t find what I was looking for, I figured tracking it down would be as simple as asking the cashier at the corner store where Stanley Kunitz had lived and she would nod knowingly—ah, the poet—and give us exact coordinates for the cottage.
His garden was what most intrigued me and what I most wanted to behold and admire. It was, among the small fraction of the population who cared, famous. Over the years, it appeared often in his poems as a place where crickets trilled and flowers were coaxed into bloom, as a temptation for hungry herbivores, a home to ghosts and renewal, a place of variation and rotation, where animals lived and fought and had sex and died at the tip of a vast ocean and beneath an even vaster sky. He mentioned it in interviews; in author photos he posed amidst its bounty, leaning casually, arms crossed, against one of its trees. The garden was the metaphor around which his life revolved. The last line of his biography on the back flap of his Collected Poems read, “Kunitz and his wife, the artist Elise Asher, live in New York City and Provincetown, where he cultivates a celebrated seaside garden.”
“There is a shot, a close up of his long thin fingers clasped behind his back, their tips brown and rough and wrinkled and covered with dirt, that is the very definition of what it means to be alive on earth.”
His former student, the poet Mark Doty, described Kunitz’s as, “a life that believes in transformation from one form to another, to see the flowering, the breaking down, the re-flowering again, the seasonal, the circular.” His final book—The Wild Braid—recounts the 40 years he spent in that garden and features photographs of him walking its paths with and without a cane, inspecting progress, watering, pruning, planting. He was a slight man who wore earth tones and often donned a jaunty sea captain’s cap. His eyes were hooded and his nose gently hooked. There is a shot, a close up of his long thin fingers clasped behind his back, their tips brown and rough and wrinkled and covered with dirt, that is the very definition of what it means to be alive on earth.
When Kunitz and Asher bought the cottage in 1962, the yard was a dune. He built three terraces to contain the sand and hauled seaweed in from the beach which, when combined with compost and peat moss, enriched the soil. He turned the most barren ground into the most fertile. In 2004, a few years before he died, the garden boasted 69 species, including three twenty-foot-tall conical Alberta spruces and a juniper.
Josh and I emerged that morning from the fray of tourist central into Commercial’s residential end, and the search for the house and garden began in earnest. From the very first block, I sensed the destination approaching: it was the next house or maybe the next or the next or the one after that or just around that curve or past that stop sign. I described again for good measure what I thought it was we were looking for. Nothing we passed matched my description.
For distraction, we began to play house hunters, critiquing cottages until we found one we agreed would be a nice place to spend the rest of our lives.
Eventually, Commercial ended in a parking lot. None of the houses we’d passed had been the one we’d come to see. From the parking lot, though, you could walk out over the breakwater, across a mile and a half of ocean, and since we weren’t in a rush we headed for the boulders. This was the kind of small adventure I craved with a partner: to cross on rocks a body of wild water and feel safe.
Back on land and having exhausted that corner of town, we followed a sign for an open house and turned down a lane at the end of which was a shingled farmhouse. We let ourselves in, footsteps knocking. The Realtor materialized as Realtors do from other rooms and we made small talk about prices, seasonal population fluctuations, and the eccentric floor plans common in pricey seaside communities where land is scarce and contortion required. These were cottages for millionaires with a penchant for close-talking: just the three of us in the room and I felt cramped and claustrophobic. But before I could make my excuses and duck out, I needed to ask for help if help was what I wanted.
“I’m wondering where Stanley Kunitz lived. Do you know?”
“The film director?” he said, thinking I meant Stanley Kubrick.
“No, the poet.”
“Oh, right,” he paused and gave me perplexed look, trying to place this poet I spoke of in his cultural memory. “I think he lived on Commercial but way over on the west side where the art gallery is. Where Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, those guys had houses.” He didn’t sound confident but my own convictions had as of yet proven so misplaced that I was in no position to judge.
“Where are we now?”
“At the very end of the east end.”
Outside again, walking turned to trudging. We trudged up Commercial in the direction from which we’d come. We trudged past the puritanical Cape Cod, past the extravagant Victorian. We trudged past the leather harnesses and dildos. We were by then damp through, our feet hurt, and Josh had to use the bathroom, so when the public library—a grand old Georgian overlooking the bay—materialized as if a Brigadoon emerging from fog, we didn’t have to exchange a word before turning together up its walkway. Josh headed for the restrooms; I wandered off towards no place in particular, which led me to the Rose Dorothea, as fine a vessel as ever sailed the second floor of a library. She dominated the designated children’s area. Her masts required double the ceiling height, so the library’s third floor was a balcony that looked down onto the Rose Dorthea’s deck on one side while its windows looked out across the bay towards Plymouth on the other. The boats bobbed in the harbor. The solid ground of Plymouth and its rock sat somewhere lost in the clouds that had settled on the bay.
Although he published his first volume of poems when still in his twenties, Stanley Kunitz was a late bloomer. For the first two-thirds of his career his style was high and intellectual; he was respected but not famous. This changed in 1971 with the publication of The Testing Tree, his fourth book of poems. He was 66, past the point where most writers have long since produced their best work, but for him it was a breakthrough: the language was simpler, the lines shorter, the subjects more intimate, the insights deeper.
“The Layers” was included in this collection. Aside from transformation and the persistence of his own process of becoming, in the poem he wrote about his tribe and how it had scattered; he wrote about “abandoned campsites” and loved ones he had lost along the way. I read the poem differently now than I did when I first encountered it and the images were beautiful abstractions, milestones that lay only ahead. Now I read it and recognize how the tribe begins to scatter, how the “feast of losses” serves a first course, then a second, and how “I am not who I once was, though some principal of being abides from which I struggle not to stray.” A book of poems, Kunitz said, was a “book of changes.” I like that.
“Kunitz is an example to follow, a reminder for those of us who are not religious and have no institutional way to keep our hearts open that turning towards the world is the only way to stay alive and feel it.”
Maybe it’s gauche to admit, but when a person admires a writer, it’s often not just the work she is admiring, but something about the writer’s biography as well. This is certainly true for me with Kunitz. I love the poems he wrote from 66 onward, but I love too, the story of how he lived his life. He didn’t find his voice, the woman he loved, or a reason to embrace a place long enough to turn sand into soil until he was well into middle age. Moreover, he seemed to open himself more fully to the world as time passed. Instead of turning away and shutting down as he got older, he turned towards it all and told it to stop by. It’s an example to follow, a reminder for those of us who are not religious and have no institutional way to keep our hearts open that turning towards the world is the only way to stay alive and feel it.
By the time I found myself in Provincetown with Josh, I was at an age and saddled with a reproductive situation that had every face with a mouth telling me that if I wanted a family, I should take what was being offered, especially if what was being offered was lovely. I’ve always been too picky, too hard on people, too critical. Josh was my commitment to change this about myself but this change was not coming naturally and my inability to attach to him had begun to make me wonder whether I was constitutionally unable to settle or settle down. Distracted as I had been, I hadn’t had the time yet to figure out whether I even wanted a family. Which is also why Kunitz’s life story compels me: it makes life feel long.
Looking for Kunitz’s house was the same on the east side as it had been on the west side: it was not this Cape Cod or that one, not that Greek revival or this Victorian. The further east toward Route 6 we walked, the closer we came to running out of options. Irritated, I was past the point of trudging. Josh tried to hold my hand, but I evaded it, unable to distinguish whether my frustration was with him or my own failure to find what I wanted.
I should have asked for help sooner. It was beginning to rain again. Afternoon was slipping toward evening. Time was running out. We reached the intersection of Commercial and Route 6 and stopped. We turned and retraced our steps down Commercial and once again towards the ocean.
A few blocks gone, we passed a woman loading fresh linens from her sedan into the bed and breakfast across the street.
“Excuse me?” Eyebrows raised.
“Do you know where Stanley Kunitz used to live?”
“Are you related to him?”
A skeptical pause. A relenting. “All the way down on the east end. Go up a rise and it’s on the right. Set back from the road a bit, behind a garden.”
She had the accent and demeanor of a local. I believed her.
Location memorized, I decided I wanted to go alone. So I dropped Josh at the apartment and picked up the bike that had come with our rental. The crowds of women increased as evening came on. I swerved through them, emerging for the second time that day into the peace of the residential east end where I saw two neighbors chatting by their mailboxes. I skidded to a stop as if a house was on fire and they were needed to fling buckets of water.
“Keep going straight,” the woman told me. “It’s number 38 or 36 or 42. Something like that. Hidden. You have to peek through the bushes to see it.”
Then, suddenly, there I was, halfway up a gentle rise in front of a small cottage set back from the street, half-obscured by hedges and half-eaten by a roof that dwarfed it. It was the cottage Josh and I had earlier dismissed as uninteresting, even ugly. I stood and looked hard at the house in front of me, holding up what I saw up against the negative of what I thought I had been looking for, struggling to find the overlapping lines. This garden needed pruning and weeding. No committed gardener had picked up the trowel where Kunitz had put it down. You could see how, with time and sufficient neglect, the yard could eventually return to dune. But for now and if I squinted, the handprint in the soil remained: the flowers, the herbs, the house, the hill, the tiers, the paths.
I stood at the gate staring at the ferns and the curve of the stairs to the porch and the purple irises and the purple flowers I couldn’t place because I know nothing about gardens or the kind of dedication it takes to start one and nurture it until it flourishes. I thought about the snakes rustling in the shrubbery and the old man staking his garden down so that the seeds he planted wouldn’t be lifted from the dirt and blown away.
Next door, Lucinda Williams sang “Right In Time” out of a boom box on the porch as a group of women played croquet with their mallets in one hand, red plastic beer cups in the other.
Not a day goes by / I don’t think about you . . .
“Was this Stanley Kunitz’s house?” I yelled to anyone inclined to listen, wanting confirmation, once and for all.
You left your mark on me it’s permanent, a tattoo . . .
“Yep. Have you read about the snakes?” The woman who answered me hit her ball with a thwack.
I take off my watch and my earrings, my bracelets and everything . . .
I had indeed heard about the snakes. One summer Kunitz had “heard them / rustling in the shrubbery.” He wrote about about them and their animal love. They were mates.
Think about you on that long ride, I bite my nails I get weak inside . . .
Monday was Memorial Day, a national occasion to get stuck in traffic and honor those who died fighting for causes both worthwhile and lost. On the way down the peninsula en route to the highway, we made one last pilgrimage pit stop. Wellfleet Beach is where a 63-foot finback whale once washed ashore; as hours passed, locals had gathered to watch the animal die. At some point, Kunitz joined the crowd, touched the whale, looked directly into its eye. Years later he wrote about what he saw in his poem “The Wellfleet Whale.”
We arrived at low tide. A handful of fishermen had parked their pickups on the sand to farm shellfish, but otherwise the beach was deserted and the water calm, a tone painting of blues and browns.
There is nothing like low tide on Cape Cod to make one feel exposed and vulnerable to the elements—human and otherwise—of land and sea. The shore is where these two worlds of the earth meet as one becomes the other and the other becomes the one. The first thing Kunitz does in “The Wellfleet Whale” is recognize that what he shares with the enormous, helpless animal is also what separates them: “You have your language too,” he writes in the poem’s opening lines. He then gives the backstory of how, just the day before, the whale had been swimming and happy and the people had watched and marveled at its grace and power, before turning in for the night. When they awoke in the morning, the whale was stranded, already blistered and oozing, its fate sealed, its language designed for the “vast loneliness of the sea” already a foreign tongue.
Josh and I took a few pictures, drank our coffees in silence. We then returned to the car and fastened our seatbelts. We drove back through the town and took a right onto Route 6 to begin the long drive up the fishhook of Cape Cod.
One last thing.
I saw him read once. In my hometown. Charlottesville. At a packed house at Culbreth Theater, 2001. He was 95, old and bent—but when he began reading, his voice was clear and strong. Not a word was coughed or lost. A snapshot of that audience might imply we had been watching some great Shakespearean drama unfold on stage instead of an elderly poet, so frail that he was half-hidden by the lectern behind which he stood reading verse. There were tears. An encore.
For his final poem that night, he read “Touch Me,” a love poem that unfolds in his garden as a storm approaches. “What makes the engine go?” he asks, “Desire, desire, desire.” It’s one of his finest poems; the last one he ever published. When he finished there was a standing ovation. He brought us to our feet. It doesn’t feel so long ago.
Afterwards, I bought the book of his collected poems I still have. I’m looking now at his signature scrawled across the title page, remembering that awkward moment upon reaching the front of the line in the crowded lobby after the reading. Book in hand for him to sign, I disclosed the inevitable: “My teacher was one of your students,” I said.
He smiled and nodded at her name. A seed thrown to wind. Roots hanging tight to soil tilled.
“Give her my love,” he said.