My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long lipped stranger
with a brave mustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
Stanley Kunitz’s The Portrait
If you are like me, you have a penchant for poems that end with an explosion. The final lines need to ratchet up the intensity and send us on our way saying “wow” or “what just happened.” Poems that end with a serene, pastoral image can be refreshing as well, but I’m drawn to the grand finale. The blank, white space after the end of a poem provides a natural pause and ending with an emotionally charged image or declaration allows the poet to take advantage of that white space. Stanley Kunitz provides us with The Portrait, a perfect example of a poem that ends with a boom. Intensely personal and daringly introspective, Kunitz braves the tempests of his family’s tragic past to better understand his place in the world today.
My affinity for bold closing lines also extends to bold opening lines. “My mother never forgave my father / for killing himself.” That certainly is a strong way to begin the poem. Bookending that beginning with the slap at the end of the poem creates two powerful points of emotion through which the poem passes (See, I’m hearkening back to our Amichai Geometry lesson). From those beginning lines, Kunitz threads out another important detail. As if his father’s killing himself wasn’t reason alone for his mother to be angry, Stanley details further circumstances: he did it in a public park, it was spring, and it was an awkward time because Stanley was “waiting to be born.” The poet builds those details upon each other, saving the juiciest and most troubling for last, allowing the sting to build and linger. Clearly, this is preparation for a similar sting at the poem’s close.
What was his mother’s reaction to her husband’s tragic suicide? “She locked his name / in her deepest cabinet / and would not let him out, / though I could hear him thumping.” Her efforts to erase his existence and suppress the pain and anger he has caused are ultimately counterproductive. Stanley “hears him thumping” and that is enough for him to liberate his father by at least recognizing his previous existence. He retrieves a portrait of his father from the attic. Notice Stanley’s description of his father: “a long lipped stranger / with a brave mustache / and deep brown level eyes.” I can’t locate in my mind exactly why I adore that description. It seems to capture the tension and awkwardness of not knowing this person who gave him life and wanting to love him even though he left in such desperation and mystery.
There is nothing in this poem to lead us to believe that Stanley’s mother would show any compassion or forgiveness to her deceased husband. It must take overwhelming energy to banish him from her memory, to erase him from the past. When Stanley presents the portrait of his father she reacts in the only way she can: “she ripped it into shreds / without a single word / and slapped me hard.” The matter-of-fact nature of her actions, and his recounting of them, is shocking. Certainly emotion exists in this situation, but the removal of it supplies the poem with a rush of terror. With that terror still fresh in our minds, Kunitz lets us into his mind: “In my sixty-fourth year / I can feel my cheek / still burning.” The courage it took to write this poem and expose himself to the world is bountiful and admirable. Stanley Kunitz was regarded as a great teacher of poets, an old sage who young poets flocked to, but he was also a masterful poet himself. The Portrait very well might have the best combination of opening and closing lines of any poem I’ve ever read. It starts with a bang, ends with a bang, and the lines in-between aren’t too bad either.