by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) made a long journey in a short life, before she died from leukemia a month and a day before her 48th birthday.
In the years prior to her death, she published four volumes of poetry, and a volume of translations of the poems of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She still was editing Otherwise: New and Selected Poems until just before her final days. The editing was finished later by her husband, poet Donald Hall, and Otherwise was published posthumously.
Part of her journey can be seen in these first two poems. The Argument is a childhood memory of an encounter with death, while Let Evening Come is written from her changed perspective as an adult. The mood of Let Evening Come eerily foreshadows her struggle for acceptance of the illness that would take her life.
On the way to the village store
I drive through a down-draft
from the neighbor’s chimney.
Woodsmoke tumbles from the eaves
backlit by sun, reminding me
of the fire and sulfur of Grandmother’s
vengeful God, the one who disapproves
of jeans and shorts for girls,
dancing, strong waters, and adultery.
A moment later the smoke enters
the car, although the windows are tight,
insinuating that I might, like Judas,
and the foolish virgins, and the rich
young man, have been made for unquenchable
fire. God will need something to burn
if the fire is to be unquenchable.
“All things work together for the good
for those who love God,” she said
to comfort me at Uncle Hazen’s funeral,
where Father held me up to see
the maroon gladiolus that trembled
as we approached the bier, the elaborate
shirred satin, brass fittings, anything,
oh, anything but Uncle’s squelched
and made-up face.
“No! NO! How is it good to be dead?”
I cried afterward, wild-eyed and flushed.
“God’s ways are not our ways,”
she said then out of pity
and the wish to forestall the argument.
Let Evening Come
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
But in between a family funeral in childhood, and trying to finish work on the book she knew would be her legacy, Jane Kenyon lived a life that took her from the Midwest to a New England farm, from a Hopwood Award for creative writing and a master’s at the University of Michigan to Poet Laureate of New Hampshire.
While at the University of Michigan, student Jane Kenyon met professor Donald Hall. In 1972, they married, he for the second time, she for the first – there was a 19-year difference in their ages. A couple of years later, they spent what was supposed to be a working summer vacation on Hall’s grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire, but his grandmother, who was in a nursing home, died while they were there. They bought the farm from her heirs, and moved in permanently.
Alone for a Week
I washed a load of clothes
and hung them out to dry.
Then I went up to town
and busied myself all day.
The sleeve of your best shirt
when I drove in; our night-
clothes twined and untwined in
a little gust of wind.
For me it was getting late;
for you, where you were, not.
The harvest moon was full
but sparse clouds made its light
not quite reliable.
The bed on your side seemed
as wide and flat as Kansas;
your pillow plump, cool,
and allegorical. . . .
All day the blanket snapped and swelled
on the line, roused by a hot spring wind….
From there it witnessed the first sparrow,
early flies lifting their sticky feet,
and a green haze on the south-sloping hills.
Clouds rose over the mountain….At dusk
I took the blanket in, and we slept,
restless, under its fragrant weight.
THE BLUE BOWL
Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole.
They fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.
We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows keener than these.
Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.
Heavy Summer Rain
The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day
turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
None of your blustering entrances
or exits, doors swinging wildly
on their hinges, or your huge unconscious
sighs when you read something sad,
like Henry Adams’s letters from Japan,
where he traveled after Clover died.
Everything blooming bows down in the rain:
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centers
lie shattered on the lawn.
Portrait Of A Figure Near Water
Rebuked, she turned and ran
uphill to the barn. Anger, the inner
arsonist, held a match to her brain.
She observed her life: against her will
it survived the unwavering flame.
The barn was empty of animals.
Only a swallow tilted
near the beams, and bats
hung from the rafters
the roof sagged between.
Her breath became steady
where, years past, the farmer cooled
the big tin amphoræ of milk.
The stone trough was still
filled with water: she watched it
and received its calm.
So it is when we retreat in anger:
we think we burn alone
and there is no balm.
Then water enters, though it makes
Kenyon fought a recurring battle with depression even before she became ill. These are two sections from her long poem, Having It Out With Melancholy:
5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.
6 IN AND OUT
The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .
When she was first diagnosed with leukemia, a bone-marrow transplant offered a chance of survival, but the probability of dying was very real.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
In her last eleven days, death became a certainty. She wrote a few poems, but for the last five days, she lost her speech and then full consciousness. This poem is what she hoped came next.
Notes from the Other Side
I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.
Now there is no more catching
one’s own eye in the mirror,
there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course
no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing
of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.
The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,
and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
In the long journey of her short life, Jane Kenyon transformed the ordinary into poems that are intimately personal and yet utterly universal. Her images come to me at unexpected moments, reminders that ‘it will be otherwise’ but today I am still here.
POETRY AND OTHER WORK
- From Room to Room, Alice James Books (1978)
- The Boat of Quiet Hours, Graywolf Press (1986)
- Let Evening Come, Graywolf Press (1990)
- Constance, Graywolf Press (1993)
- Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press (1996)
- A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, the Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, Notes, Interviews, and One Poem, Graywolf Press (1999)
- Collected Poems, Graywolf Press (2007)
- Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/jane-kenyon
- Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/jane-kenyon
- The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon, © 2005 by Donald Hall – Mariner Books
- Two pictures of Jane Kenyon
- Maroon Gladiolas
- Jenne Farm – Autumn in New England by Joann Vitali
- Wash on the line
- Blue bowl
- Red Peonies
- Old barn with stone trough
- Sleeping dog
- Dinner for two
- A handful of light
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud