“In a murderous time | the heart breaks and breaks | and lives by breaking.” Stanley Kunitz, from “The Testing Tree”

“Foreign Model in Japan” (1925)
by Gesshu Ogawa


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 dwindlingT
toward 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 on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.

~ Stanley Kunitz


Music by We Are the City, “My Old Friend”

5 thoughts on ““In a murderous time | the heart breaks and breaks | and lives by breaking.” Stanley Kunitz, from “The Testing Tree”

  1. Its about a person being exposed to an extraordinary number of personal losses. Initially their heart breaks and breaks again then again….but there comes a point in which a person has a numbness to the next loss, protecting itself from what seems to now be a routine emotion. They’ve lost their innocence from overwhelming tragic circumstances, and this is how their heart lives by breaking. They continue through dark & deeper wounds & at some point that numbness is pushed aside by the person owning their experience, their humanity starts to return. Not to turn is allowing ones self to be human once more, to shed the numbness.

  2. So, what do you think this means?

    “In a murderous time,
    the heart breaks and breaks
    and lives by breaking.
    It is necessary to go
    through dark and deeper dark
    and not to turn.”

    When applied to “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” I took it to mean that one must trust and hope that good times will return, though one may go through heart break and peril. The heart must gain something by going through all this loss? (it lives by breaking) But, what does it mean when he says “and not to turn.” I’m taking it as you don’t give up. In Kunitz’s poems, I don’t really get enough clues to understand what he refers to in this part. Applied to his life, well, he’s certainly had heartbreak and hard times. But, he seems to have come through and had some success and a longer marriage and his homes and gardens and recognition of his writing and friends. So, it seems, he’s come through hard times and done okay.

    A friend and I were discussing this – about the turn… She said, “Not sure how that ‘not turning’ [to the dark side?] is supposed to happen, though.”


    1. Well first I think you need to back up to the line, “Never try to explain.” He has spent all of the previous lines talking about days as a boy in which he was untouchable, the master of his kingdom, anything and everything he wanted to be. Then the poem jumps time in stanza four where there is sadness, heartbreak, and longing for a safer time, a time in which the speaker has more control over life. When faced with trials, it is necessary to go through them and not to avoid them, not to run away, not matter how painful. It’s not turning to the dark side; it’s not turning away from the darkness, which is completely different. We cannot truly live if we do not embrace both the bad and the good, no matter how much easier it might be to close our eyes to the pain. Edward learns through his journey, about life, about human nature, about love and loss.

      Hope that helps.

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