Study Guide

The Layers Quotes

  • Transformation

    Yet I turn, I turn,
    exulting somewhat,
    with my will intact to go
    wherever I need to go, (26-29)

    There are a lot of things that turn, like werewolves, and Mr. Hyde, and Gremlins. But we don't all turn from good to evil, sometimes we go from good to better. "The Layers" is a poem with forward momentum, despite all the past talk, and the speaker seems to make a switch towards a positive outlook on the future.

    no doubt the next chapter
    in my book of transformations
    is already written. (41-43)

    Wait, so the next phase in the speaker's life exists because it's already written, but it hasn't happened yet? Obviously, the speaker is pretty confident that more transformations are on the horizon. Given that the chronology is out of whack and some other "forces" might be involved, how does he come to this confident conclusion?

    I am not done with my changes. (44)

    The last line of the poem suggests never-ending transformation. This guy is a transformer, who even in old age, feels like he's got forever ahead of him. They should really make a movie.

  • Death

    and the slow fires trailing
    from the abandoned camp-sites, (13-14)

    Dark imagery sets up this scene. We can imagine smoke pluming in the distance signifying an ending or loss. A crucial word in this passage, "abandoned," means that these places were completely deserted. Perhaps the speaker still relates to these "camp-sites" in some way despite leaving them behind. Or, maybe he misses his old pals who used to occupy those places, but are no longer with us.

    over which scavenger angels
    wheel on heavy wings. (15-16)

    Scavengers feed on the dead and angels, well, we usually don't see them when we're alive. So these lines indicate that some sort of death has taken place. On the other hand, it's intriguing that the speaker himself not only sees the scavenger angels but also seems to be in cahoots with them.

    the manic dust of my friends,
    those who fell along the way,
    bitterly stings my face. (23-25)

    The speaker's caught up in memories of his friends who have fallen by the wayside, but it's not clear if they have literally or metaphorically died. Since "The Layers" is a conscious exploration of life, it might not matter if his friends physically died, only that they're no longer growing or "changing" like the speaker is.

  • Time

    I have walked through many lives,
    some of them my own,
    and I am not who I was, (1-3)

    Walking through one life takes a while, let alone many. We are introduced to the speaker in these opening lines that challenge the idea of time in a big way. According the speaker, life isn't short, and it might involve multiple trips around the Ferris wheel. If that's not enough, the speaker's lived so much that he doesn't even identify with who he used to be. That's a lot of living, and a lot of time.

    When I look behind,
    as I am compelled to look
    before I can gather strength
    to proceed on my journey, (7-10)

    The speaker feels like he has to look backwards in time before he can move forward. Somehow, this is related to growing stronger, but I don't think he's trying to recall cardio kickboxing classes. What kind of strength is he referring to?

    I see the milestones dwindling
    toward the horizon (11-12)

    This image, milestones shrinking over a great expanse, could be seen as an analogy for time passing over many years. We know that traveling for a long distance takes time, so Kunitz is ramping up that idea, showing us just how long the speaker's journey has been. Keep an eye out for more stone imagery as the poem progresses.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    though some principle of being
    abides, from which I struggle
    not to stray. (4-6)

    The speaker seems to have found a constant in life that doesn't change with the seasons, but is he struggling against the world or against himself to stay true to it?

    and every stone on the road
    precious to me. (30-31)

    A long life can usually lead to two things, either lots of learning experiences or lots of bitterness. In these lines, we see the speaker describing every past happening ("every stone") in his life as something important that has shaped him in some way. He seems to be valuing the past here. Maybe even hard times aren't so bad in hindsight.

    a nimbus-clouded voice
    directed me:
    "Live in the layers,
    not on the litter." (35-38)

    A voice from the clouds usually means serious business. This particular, and rather wise, voice also says the title of the poem and does that nifty repetition of initial sounds thing (alliteration). We don't see a lot of sound play in "The Layers," so Kunitz is grabbing our attention and directing us towards this significant passage. Perhaps we're supposed to think about layers vs. litter, in vs. on, and how those contrasts relate to humanity as a whole.

  • Isolation

    Oh, I have made myself a tribe
    out of my true affections,
    and my tribe is scattered! (17-19)

    The speaker has lived, loved, and lost over the course of his existence and sometimes that can be emotional. He seems to lament the fact that he no longer has those attachments. Growing is a good thing, but it's not always easy to leave people and places behind.

    How shall the heart be reconciled
    to its feast of losses? (20-21)

    The speaker is disheartened and at his lowest point, recalling all the connections he has lost. He expresses this heartache by asking a rhetorical question. It's rhetorical because there's no definitive answer and he's essentially asking himself. It's hard to think clearly when emotions are involved, but as the later lines in the poem suggest, he seems to find his answer.

    when the moon was covered
    and I roamed through wreckage, (33-34)

    The speaker recalls being lost and alone in a harsh environment. The use of the word "wreckage" is an interesting choice here. Perhaps it's offering some grounding and foreshadowing for another interesting word, "litter," that appears in line 38.