The Old Clothes Man

A Poem



The years make a stain you can’t conceal,

Your fabric’s eaten, you discard

That part of your life for which you cared.


You pluck a thread from your cuff; it winces

Straight to your shoulder. Ambition grieves

In trunks and bags; moth-featured, minces

From closets, beating empty sleeves.

History stagnates in your house.

I smelt the ruinous time, will buy

Your waste of talent. There’s an ooze

Of souls too virulent to die.


Contagious on the baffling walls.

You sit and watch the ceiling crack;

Horror sifts through and softly falls

From worlds beyond the zodiac.

You fear the penitential bone

That growls in your breast, and the mind’s long feather,

The heart that imitates a stone,

And if your hands should grow together


And violence unstring your voice.

I know what hangs behind your stair,

Spoiling that conscience and disuse:

The uniform you never wear,

The fitness and the pride, so vilely

Dishonored, the smiling target mouth,

Innocence ambushed, in the sharp volley

Reeling before the huntsmen of youth.


Therefore I come to mobilize

Your poor blind wounds, as in the coat,

The form betrayed, the defeated eyes,

My brother my groom, my dear recruit.


There will be skirmishing and loot

And fires to light our matches. Let

The enemies of life beware

When these old clothes shall go to war.


Stanley J. Kunitz (1905–2006) was a twentieth-century American poet of Jewish Russian Lithuanian decent. After moving his family to America, Kunitz’s father, a dressmaker, died when he was fourteen, an event that profoundly influenced the poet and his work. Later working as a reporter and editor between New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts, Kunitz has come to be celebrated for his influence in the symbolist genre of poetry. The poem, ‘The Old Clothes Man,’ was published in Volume 44 of Poetry magazine in 1934. 

Kristin Bjornerud is a Canadian artist based in Montreal.