Search This Blog

Monday, August 29, 2011

Number 248: Stanley Kunitz "Three Floors"

Three Floors

Mother was a crack of light
and a gray eye peeping;
I made believe by breathing hard
that I was sleeping.

Sister's doughboy on last leave
has robbed me of her hand;
downstairs at intervals she played
Warum on the baby grand.

Under the roof a wardrobe trunk
whose lock a boy could pick
contained a red Masonic hat
and a walking stick.

Bolt upright in my bed that night
I saw my father flying;
the wind was walking on my neck,
the windows were crying.

-- Stanley Kunitz

Hap Notes: This is a beautifully constructed poem and like many good poems it contains a massive amount of information in a compact amount of space. Let's take it stanza by stanza.

The poet is a young boy in bed. His mother checks on him by opening the door just a crack and peeking in. He, like all of us have done at one time or another, fakes sleeping by regular hard breathing, eyes shut in slumbering concentration. His room is on the second floor.

Downstairs, the poet's sister is entertaining her WWI soldier boyfriend on the piano (at intervals; whether from hesitation in her skill or from other things one does with a boyfriend in the parlor.) She plays "Warum" which I think is a part of Schumann's "Fantasiest├╝cke" (Fantasy Pieces) and sounds like this:
'Warum' means "why?" and you can hear from the dreamy quality of the music (and the character in Schumann's composition, how this would lead a person to dream and ponder). Here's a little more info on the piece- it's very telling for the poem: Go to and click on the word Fantasiest├╝cke.The "gentle questioning" of the piece is an interesting dimension here. The poet is "robbed" of his sister's hand and it may mean she tucked him in at night and it may mean he has lost her attention. And of course, there is the love and admiration that a young boy feels for an older sister- that often manifests itself in a sort of romance.

Up in the attic is a trunk that the poet, as a boy, has picked the lock of and found some hidden mysteries within. Remember when we talked of Kunitz before we have discussed how his father committed suicide before the poet was born: In the trunk are items of his father's. He selects interesting items for the poem. The mysterious Masonic hat showing his father to be a member of the Masons (side note: when I was a kid I got into one of my father's nightstand drawers and found his Masonic "code" book. I didn't understand it and it both puzzled and scared me.) A walking stick is also an interesting piece. What kind of person carries a walking stick? (Hints: think on the words balance, pride, lame, hobbled, well-dressed.)

Then, in the middle of the night, the poet/boy awakes with a start from a thunderstorm. How could the wind be "walking on his neck"? Why would his father be flying? The rain on the windows is like tears. How do you think the poet/boy feels, first as a small boy in bed and secondly as a man remembering this?

This poem is loaded with other things as well. Think on the short portraits of everyone in the poem. What are eyes and hands doing in this poem? What do these three floors stand for in the poem? There is much, much more to be gleaned from these short stanzas.

Here is the other entry where we have talked about Kunitz before:

The masthead is Chagall's "The Dream". I don't know that it has all that much to do with the poem but it's the painting that came into my head to use.


  1. In the last line, "windows" should be "windowpanes". This is a very serious error.

  2. I checked the rest of the text, and in the sixth line, "has" should be "had".