Study Guide

The Layers

The Layers Summary

Reading "The Layers" is like following a roadmap for the human condition. Kunitz takes us beneath the surface of things and into "the layers," challenging the idea that life is short and depressing. Through conscious exploration, the speaker reflects on the meaning of trials and tribulations from his past as he looks towards the future.

At times, he feels disconnected, disheartened, and questions whether he should continue. Yet, he's determined to persevere and combat those down-and-out feelings. Just as a ship caught in a storm looks to a lighthouse for direction, the speaker digs deep to find guidance out of the darkness. He embraces the ups and downs of life as stepping stones, leading him on a never-ending path of growth and renewal.

  • Lines 1-6

    Lines 1–3

    I have walked through many lives,
    some of them my own,
    and I am not who I was,

    • Straight out the gate, our speaker gets metaphysical. He has experienced "many lives" and changed as a result of those adventures. 
    • The end of line 1, "many lives," and the entirety of line 2, "some of them my own," could be a literal references to reincarnation (living multiple lifetimes). Or, the speaker could be pointing out how expansive and colorful his past has been, in a metaphorical sense. 
    • Kunitz leaves it open for interpretation, but one thing's for sure: this speaker is old and deep! And his hyper-awareness plays an important role throughout the poem. (Special note: There are no specific details assigned to the speaker, making him a universally relatable character, or an "everyman." Even the speaker's gender is not disclosed, but we'll stick to "he" for the sake of convenience here.)
    • By line 3, we know a clear change has taken place within the speaker, "I am not who I was." Not only has he left an old life (or lives) behind, but he's also observed how fleeting this crazy thing called "life" can be.

    Lines 4–6

    though some principle of being
    abides, from which I struggle
    not to stray.

    • In contrast to the last section, these lines focus on a permanent aspect of identity that does not change over time. The speaker uses a constant, or "principle of being," as a guide to follow on the road ahead. 
    • Line 4 into line 5 contains a pretty abstract (but pretty important) passage packed with meaning: "principle of being / abides."
    • Let's take a closer look: the noun "principle" has definitions ranging from "guiding sense" to "resounding truth." The prepositional phrase, "of being," essentially stands for "of existence." In this context, "principle of being" is then a core sensibility, or a guiding light, that directs the speaker and shows him where to go. 
    • The verb "abides" (endures or continues) is yet another clue that this guiding light is steadfast and unwavering.
    • This concept could be compared to a "soul" or "intuition." So, why doesn't Kunitz say that? Well, this poem is all about a universal understanding of the human condition. By implementing general terminology, Kunitz is making the poem relatable to the audience (or appealing to the masses), regardless of our backgrounds or belief systems. 
    • In line 5 and 6, the speaker "struggle[s] not to stray," or tries to adhere to this core sensibility even under difficult circumstances.
    • One last thing: notice anything about how this poem sounds? It's pretty conversational, not anything super-formal or up-tight.
    • Check out "Form and Meter" for the scoop on how this is all put together.
  • Lines 7-16

    Lines 7–10

    When I look behind,
    as I am compelled to look
    before I can gather strength
    to proceed on my journey,

    • Here, the speaker reflects on his past before he can move forward. 
    • The idea of "look[ing] behind" in order to "gather strength" is one figurative way to show how we all mature and develop on a personal level through life experiences. The speaker acknowledges where he came from and everything that led him to where he is today.
    • He also recalls past events in order to grow from those experiences and apply that knowledge as he "proceed[s]" (or embarks) on his future travels. (We live and we learn, right? Well, ideally.)

    Lines 11–12

    I see the milestones dwindling
    toward the horizon

    • These lines provide on-the-ground details related to the last passage, as if the speaker is looking back over a timeline marked by substantial events that have previously unfolded.
    • The enjambment from line 11 (ending with "dwindling") to line 12 (starting with "toward") gives us a feeling of backward motion promptly followed by forward motion.
    • Crafty ol' Kunitz is using the form of the poem to enact a push-pull effect between the past and future. 
    • Word choice is worth noting in line 11: "milestone" can be literally translated to mean a stone functioning as a milepost. In this way, "milestone" indicates great distances and periods of time passing.
    • "Milestone" can also symbolize significant stages or turning points in life. Kunitz plays with this dual meaning to further his argument: While many things fall away over time, a part of us is always aware (or conscious) for the duration of the ride. (See the "Symbols: Stones" section for more.)

    Lines 13–14

    and the slow fires trailing
    from the abandoned camp-sites,

    • Similar to the last section, we're given a bird's eye view of a landscape filled with dwindling fires to represent (metaphorically) all the events that have transpired during the speaker's long life. 
    • Unlike "milestones," "slow fires trailing" is a more somber image (you know, flames, smoke, maybe some brimstone) that connotes loss and leaving old places ("camp-sites"), people, or things behind.

    Lines 15–16

    over which scavenger angels
    wheel on heavy wings.

    • Just when the poem was dishing out solid, concrete images, it shifts back into metaphysical territory. The speaker sees supernatural entities picking things up from his past.
    • A "scavenger" is an animal that searches through and collects discarded material. So, in this context, "scavenger angels" are acting as forces from another realm, collecting significant things from the speaker's past for him to take with him on his journey. 
    • Although this is a weighty scene, Kunitz has constructed a dynamic and exciting analogy, showing how we must consciously pick and choose elements from our past in order to continue moving forward. (And scavenger angels are a pretty rad way to say that.) 
    • The verb "wheel" in line 16 might seem like it came from left field. But it captures the cyclical nature of change that Kunitz is going for, with definitions like, "to turn, rotate, or revolve around an axis." (See the "Symbols: Turning" section for more on that.)
  • Lines 17-31

    Lines 17–19

    Oh, I have made myself a tribe
    out of my true affections,
    and my tribe is scattered!

    • Now, the speaker is brimming with emotion while he remembers past attachments, loves, and lives that are no longer present. 
    • These memories are sure getting a rise out of the speaker and Kunitz makes that clear, ending line 19 marked with an exclamation (!).
    • At first glance, these lines contain some peculiar words, like "tribe" and "affections." A "tribe" is a group of people, plants or things that share a common tie. "Affections" are forms of attachment or influential bonds we may have to a person, thing, or event (like to our moms, our cars, or our favorite holiday).
    • In this case, the speaker recalls previous connections that influenced him in a meaningful way. These bonds (or "true affections") are abundant and "scattered" across many places and time periods.

    Lines 20–21

    How shall the heart be reconciled
    to its feast of losses?

    • The speaker is overcome by his feelings at this point, questioning how he can move beyond his previous attachments and hardships. 
    • After being hit by a strong wave of emotional loss, the speaker struggles to "be reconciled"—to accept or come to terms with heartaches from the past in order to persevere. 
    • This is a pivotal moment in the poem where the speaker asks himself a tough (and rhetorical) question. He must decide whether he wants to dwell on the trials and tribulations that have already taken place, or move forward and grow wiser from those tumultuous (super-dramatic) experiences.

    Lines 22–25

    In a rising wind
    the manic dust of my friends,
    those who fell along the way,
    bitterly stings my face.

    • Before answering the question from the previous passage, the speaker reflects on old friends who were swept up by the hardships that life entails, unable to continue their journeys. These memories pelt the speaker metaphorically, like a "manic" (frenzied or agitated) "dust" storm. 
    • The mood is mournful here and the emotionally disheartened speaker grapples with choosing the same fate has his fallen comrades or attempting to move beyond the fray, even if his memories are hard to bear.

    Lines 26–29

    Yet I turn, I turn,
    exulting somewhat,
    with my will intact to go
    wherever I need to go,

    • The biggest transition of the poem takes place in these lines with the speaker choosing to "turn" away from painful memories.
    • He regains forward momentum with a renewed outlook on what the future holds.
    • In line 26, the repetition of the verb, "turn," demonstrates change occurring and of a new lifecycle beginning. (Kunitz really likes this cyclical nature stuff. See the "Symbols: Turning" section and "Sound Check" for more details.) 
    • In addition, a positive upswing of emotions is indicated in line 27 with the verb "exulting" (to be elated, joyful, or triumphant).

    Lines 30–31

    and every stone on the road
    precious to me.

    • Now that the speaker is in his "happy place," he sees all that transpired in his life (the good, the bad, the ugly, the really ugly) as learning experiences. 
    • In line 30, Kunitz chooses to use "road" explicitly, though he's been hinting at the speaker traveling on an internal journey all along.
    • Instead of mourning the past, he's embracing "every stone" as a "precious" (or cherished) opportunity that has allowed him to grow stronger and wiser as a person. (This is also why wizards have cool beards.)
    • We're also seeing an image pattern emerging. (See the "Symbols: Stones" section for more.)
  • Lines 32-44

    Lines 32–34

    In my darkest night,
    when the moon was covered
    and I roamed through wreckage,

    • Here, the speaker relates his toughest times in life to being lost on a pitch-black night.
    • Dark, nature imagery, "the moon was covered," is used in line 33 to show the speaker in need of a guiding light to help him navigate out of "wreckage," or treacherous terrain of life.

    Lines 35–38

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

    • Holy clouds, the poem's back to being surreal with a voice speaking from the clouds. 
    • In connection with the previous lines, the speaker is able to endure his "darkest night" by following a guiding voice, or principle of being (see lines 4-6), who speaks directly only in lines 37 and 38: "Live in the layers, / not on the litter."
    • Lines 37 and 38 contain a quotation, so the voice there is definitely outside of the speaker's mind or consciousness. This voice also appears to be coming from someone pretty powerful (or even a big man upstairs). 
    • In line 35, don't let "nimbus-" throw you. It means like a gray rain cloud, or atmospheric. Kunitz wants to make it clear that this cloud voice has some serious presence. 
    • Lines 37 and 38 are incredibly sonic lines with alliteration, rhythm, and slant rhyme happening. They are definitely designed to grab our attention. See "Sound Check" for elaboration on these techniques.
    • Up to this point, we've had some clues about "the layers" meaning something in the vein of a deep, conscious exploration of life. But what about "the litter"? Think of it as surface debris, like cups and discarded nachos we trip over after an epic concert.
    • Similarly, superficial and fleeting things in life can stress us out, get in our way, and distract us from what we really care about, or what really matters in life. Let's do the math: Layers = life is centered. Litter = life is a mess. (And the moral of this story? Recycle!)

    Lines 39–40

    Though I lack the art
    to decipher it,

    • Kunitz is having a metapoetic moment here, that is—he's acknowledging the limitations of his art form, poetry.
    • The speaker is unable to use language to accurately convey the future (because it hasn't happened yet) in the same way that he was able to describe the past.

    Lines 41–43

    no doubt the next chapter
    in my book of transformations
    is already written.

    • Art and writing are directly addressed again, but this time with a twist. The speaker uses a book metaphor, "next chapter," to stand for the next phase in his life. 
    • The word "transformations" is a doozy and represents the big changes that will continue to happen to the speaker (like a cocoon to a butterfly, to a huge butterfly, to a butterfly with a wizard beard, or something.) 
    • Also, line 43, "is already written," implies a conflation of time. This means that the past, present, and future are presented in a jumbled, non-linear fashion. Within the poem, this could suggest that life, itself, isn't linear (see lines 1-3). Or, it could mean that other forces floating around out there have an influence on the speaker's life beyond his comprehension (see lines 35-38).
    • Or, it could totally mean both.

    Line 44

    I am not done with my changes.

    • This dog has not had his day. Kunitz concludes with a very succinct statement, hitting home the idea that life is about continuation and renewal, not endings or death. 
    • An enduring quality of human existence (or consciousness) is presented outside of space and time limitations. The speaker, even when facing physical death or old age, only sees infinite possibilities for growth ahead of him. 
    • It might be a little strange, but it sure is an inspiring and optimistic perspective.
    • All together now: Forever young, I wanna be, forever young.