A Thought on Stanley Kunitz’s “The Abduction”

The Abduction (from poets.org)
Stanley Kunitz

Some things I do not profess
to understand, perhaps
not wanting to, including
whatever it was they did
with you or you with them
that timeless summer day
when you stumbled out of the wood,
distracted, with your white blouse torn
and a bloodstain on your skirt.
“Do you believe?” you asked.
Between us, through the years,
we pieced enough together
to make the story real:
how you encountered on the path
a pack of sleek, grey hounds,
trailed by a dumbshow retinue
in leather shrouds; and how
you were led, through leafy ways,
into the presence of a royal stag,
flaming in his chestnut coat,
who kneeled on a swale of moss
before you; and how you were borne
aloft in triumph through the green,
stretched on his rack of budding horn,
till suddenly you found yourself alone
in a trampled clearing.

That was a long time ago,
almost another age, but even now,
when I hold you in my arms,
I wonder where you are.
Sometimes I wake to hear
the engines of the night thrumming
outside the east bay window
on the lawn spreading to the rose garden.
You lie beside me in elegant repose,
a hint of transport hovering on your lips,
indifferent to the harsh green flares
that swivel through the room,
searchlights controlled by unseen hands.
Out there is a childhood country,
bleached faces peering in
with coals for eyes.
Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?

Comment:

There are many childless couples or people living in less-than-traditional arrangements who do fine – in fact, in many cases, better than fine. They’re accomplished, responsible, loving people who know their limits.

But we all know couples who don’t know their limit. Perhaps there is an example of such a couple in the poem above: “Some things I do not profess / to understand, perhaps / not wanting to.” We may be tempted to take that as a statement of piety, but “I do not profess” should strike us otherwise. We may think the link between fidelity and belief – is not fidelity believing in another? – also brings us to piety. But “we pieced enough together / to make the story real” should again serve as a warning, along with the import of the story in the first stanza. The girl initially thinks she’s being hunted, but in truth she’s the queen: the awareness of her sexuality results in her reveling in its sheer power, the exhilaration.

I suspect this is a couple that has invested sensuality alone with everything morality and wisdom usually stand for. In a sense, then, this couple is all of us – they’re just going through the logical extreme of making up a story to justify themselves. The second stanza – the story of what is alien – is most likely unknown to the internal audience: “I wonder where you are.” This logical extreme makes childlike imaginary worlds constitutive of adulthood, even as it keeps actual children at bay. The same mysterious power that makes sensuality so alluring suggests that all things change: infidelity is written all over the second stanza, and “belief” has been replaced by the dismissive “what do we know.”

I’m not sure what exactly to do with the details just yet. A few guesses: the “timeless summer day” suggests the woods are dark; “leather shrouds” and “chestnut coat” make me think that all there are in the woods are trees, save for the hounds. “Sleek” and “grey” indicates that aging does have a power; it pushes you where it will. As our “Beatrice” is human, she steps on leaves, not quite sure what they indicate exactly about aging (cf. Hopkins, “Spring and Fall”); the “trampled clearing” is then a false enlightenment, the perfect place for alien abductions and the like.

Our speaker in the second stanza sees “harsh green flares” that his espoused is “indifferent” to. Again, we’re in darkness, the light is not real, someone is feeling driven somewhere, and the implication is that we should know more than the rapture and the dread. After all, at the very least, one can make up a story together – no?

5 Comments

  1. Oh my, Ashok. I got an entirely different take on this poem. I saw it as an invasion, a rape that the woman experienced and the man perhaps witnessed. Although they maintained a prolonged and close relationship, she was distant (“I wonder where you are.”) which sometimes emotionally happens to sexual abuse victims.

  2. That’s exactly what I thought when I first read it so I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Then I read it again and it would seem whatever happened to her in the woods she was a willing participant in and it was– a positive experience for her.

    She has an experience with someone else and the couple develops a fiction to explain it away. Apparently a lot of people thought alien abduction… the author went back and commented on the poem and said he had the sense of pain over a partners past infidelity. That’s kind of the idea I got, too. How easily we believe lies we know are untrue.

    Ashok’s mentioning of non-traditional relationship; there may be a sense that this is an ongoing thing in their relationship? When he holds her he wonders where she is- maybe he worries she’s thinking about somebody else currently?

    Either way, I read the poem twice and had vastly different opinions of it both times.

  3. I too read it as a rape. It may be dangerous to speculate on the psychology of such a traumatic experience, but maybe the story of the hounds and the stag is a form of denial. Either way the events of that “timeless day” have remained unresolved.

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