Thursday, August 19, 2010

OTHERWISE by Jane Kenyon

Fifteen years ago poet Jane Kenyon died of leukemia, just a month before her 48th birthday. A year later, in 1996, Graywolf Press published Otherwise, a collection of poems she was putting together right up until her death. Though most publishers refuse to publish poetry because most books of poetry remain unsold and unread, Otherwise is still going strong.

Here is my review of Otherwise, first published in Books and Culture magazine in 1997 as "An Appetite for the Sun."


Jane Kenyon lived the unabashedly romantic life of a poet as imagined by a screenwriter: Graduate student marries middle-aged professor, renouncing academia for poetry, learning rural ways at her husband's ancestral farm, escaping occasionally to foreign parts to enjoy fine food and wine and art, becoming--as did her husband--poet laureate of New Hampshire. She falls victim to debilitating depression, he to cancer. They struggle, they write, they love, they rise above their afflictions-until she, only 46 years old, is diagnosed with leukemia and dies 15 months later.

It is not surprising, then, that Otherwise, Kenyon's posthumous collection, has been widely and favorably reviewed; or that on the anniversary of Kenyon's death, tributes to her were held in New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts, while a 1993 televised interview of Kenyon and her husband, Donald Hall, was rebroadcast on PBS stations in Connecticut.(1)

Hall, in fact, spent a busy spring reminiscing about his late wife at various poetry festivals, at a luncheon at the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association, and with NPR's Terry Gross on Fresh Air.(2 )His poem-memoir, The Old Life (Houghton Mifflin, 134 pp.; $19.95), is dedicated to Kenyon; its final poem, "Without," is a masterpiece of raw, unmediated grief.

An enormous spiritual hunger
Despite the flurry of interest in Jane Kenyon, both critical and affectionate, it is rarely mentioned that her poetry is suffused with Christian references. When Terry Gross asked Hall if his wife maintained her faith in God throughout her final illness, he showed Yankee reticence. "Yes," he said, and then again: "Yes."

Faith did not keep her from suffering, he quickly noted: "Often there were long hours of night when there was no grace present, and there was suffering and despair. . . . I don't mean despair of survival, but despair simply of the immediate circumstances of suffering." The couple's shared faith went beyond words: "We both wanted paradise, and to meet again in paradise, so much that we couldn't speak of it."

Kenyon spoke freely of her faith, however, some three years earlier when Bill Moyers interviewed the two poets for the PBS special "A Life Together," which won an Emmy Award in 1994. When Kenyon and Hall moved to Eagle Pond Farm in the midseventies, they "got into the habit of going to church" because that's what the neighbors expected of them. Soon Kenyon discovered an "enormous spiritual hunger" fed but not satisfied by poetry. "Before I knew what had happened to me," she told Moyers, "I'd become a believer"-not in the frightening God of her childhood, but in "a God who, if you ask, forgives you no matter how far down in the well you are. If I didn't believe that I couldn't live."

For Kenyon, that statement was not hyperbole. Her poems reveal a woman dogged by depression:
It wakes when I wake, walks
when I walk, turns back when I
turn back, beating me to the door.

It spoils my food and steals
my sleep, and mocks me, saying,
"Where is your God now?"
Kenyon addresses depression directly in "Having It Out with Melancholy":
You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
"We're here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated."
And yet, unlike many depressed persons, "Jane wanted to live. She was astonished at how much she wanted to live," Hall said to Terry Gross.

"My belief in God, such as it is, especially the idea that a believer is part of the body of Christ, has kept me from harming myself," Kenyon had told Moyers. "When I really didn't want to be conscious, didn't want to be aware, was in so much pain that I didn't want to be awake or aware, I've thought to myself, 'If you injure yourself you're injuring the body of Christ, and Christ has been injured enough.' "

An extreme state of light
Kenyon selected and edited the nearly 200 poems in Otherwise during the last six months of her life. The first 20 poems are new; the last, "The Sick Wife," begun the month before her death, is unfinished. She chose the rest from her four published collections, omitting those she no longer found representative of her work, making minor changes to some of those she included.

The collection reveals a profound religious consciousness. Reviewers often mention her Zenlike imagery: the stark yet fertile descriptions reminiscent of haiku, the self-reproachful resignation ("How much better it is / to carry wood to the fire / than to moan about your life"). Even more pervasive are the Christian symbols: the biblical imagery and quotations, the faith and hope that persist in the presence of suffering.

Many of the poems deal with melancholy, illness, old age, and death. "There was not a great deal of comfort" in her faith, according to Hall; easy answers offered her no solution to pain. "You wouldn't be so depressed / if you really believed in God," says a friend in "Having It Out with Melancholy," and Kenyon offers no response. In Kenyon's universe, God does not remove pain and evil--but neither does he will it. In "Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993" God thinks:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
Kenyon does not stand apart from the evil she observes: "Darkness is all around and inside me." Yet her poems, like her beloved flowers, strain toward the light. On a hot day in April,
I saw that a yellow crocus bud had pierced
a dead oak leaf, then opened wide. How strong
its appetite for the luxury of the sun!
Light brings health and growth and reveals beauty in dark places. Looking at "Dutch Interiors," she exclaims,
Now tell me that the Holy Ghost
does not reside in the play of light
on cutlery!
Like the Holy Ghost, light also reveals imperfections. The sun comes out after a snowstorm, and "In this extreme state of light / everything seems flawed." Sometimes--frequently--light is denied. Here the poet's faith seems strongest: "If it's darkness / we're having, let it be extravagant," she says. Death is not necessarily an enemy; darkness does not overwhelm light. Writing of a woman in a nursing home, she plays with the word light as she alludes to Jesus' invitation in Matthew 11:28-30: "Master, come with your light / halter. Come and bring her in."

In one of her best-known and best-loved poems, one that Kenyon told Bill Moyers was given to her by the Holy Spirit, she writes:
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
God, she says in "Notes from the Other Side," "as promised, proves / to be mercy clothed in light."

Present at the Creation
Kenyon's poetry at first glance seems artless. Like fine wine, however, her poems linger on the palate, disclosing unsuspected depth and complexity long after the first taste. Look, for example, at the short poem "Cesarean":
The surgeon with his unapologetic
blade parted darkness, revealing
day. Then from her large clay
he drew toward his masked
face my small clay. The clatter,
the white light, the vast freedom
were terrible. Outside in, oh, inside
out, and why did everybody shout?
The surgeon with his unapologetic blade . . . Is this T. S. Eliot's wounded surgeon, plying the steel? The word "unapologetic," from apologia, "to speak in defense," suggests that the blade is not raised in defense against cancerous intrusions, but rather unapologetically is bringing life into existence, like the word of God that is "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword."

. . . parted darkness, revealing day. The creative word, the Logos, spoke all things into being (John 1:3); the word of the Lord made the heavens and gathered the waters of the sea (Ps. 33:6-7); the word of God "separated the light from the darkness" on the first day of creation (Gen. 1:3-4).3

Then from her large clay he drew toward his masked face my small clay. As from "the dust of the ground" (Gen. 2:7), the surgeon takes the child. In a biblical birth poem Job cries out, "Remember that you fashioned me like clay" (Job 10:9). Like Job, who cannot escape personal involvement with his maker, this small clay is inexorably drawn toward the surgeon. Yet unlike Job, who sees his creator face to face (Job 42:5), the small clay sees only the mask, like the veil over Moses' face shielding Israel from God's dazzling glory (Ex. 34:30-35).

The clatter, the white light, the vast freedom . . . And indeed there is glory in this place as the newborn is delivered "from the power of darkness" (Col. 1:13) "into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9), into "the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21).

. . . were terrible--as "the day of the Lord" is "terrible indeed--who can endure it?" (Joel 2:11). With God-given freedom the newborn will leave the womb's paradise, learn good from evil, earn bread through sweat, birth children in pain. In God-beamed light, her works will be displayed for judgment. "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world. . . . For all who do evil hate the light," said Jesus, "but those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God" (John 3:20-21).

Outside in, oh, inside out, . . . Breathing, no longer floating; crying out at the noise and light, she is now "a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17). Or perhaps it is the universe that is new--"a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more" (Rev. 21:1).

. . . and why did everybody shout? Because that's the appropriate response to creation, "when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy" (Job 38:7). It is also the definitive announcement of the new creation--"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout" (1 Thess. 4:16, KJV).

Is this poem about a Caesarean birth? A soul's new birth? The creation of the universe? The Last Judgment? The New Earth? Yes to all.

The poet as priest
Jane Kenyon's poems are short, concrete, and simple. They offer the reader revelations of everyday beauty. They reveal sorrow without despair and hope without false cheer. Reading them is emotionally satisfying, and Kenyon is a sympathetic romantic heroine. For all of these reasons, Otherwise is a good book to own and to give.

On a deeper level, Kenyon's poems have a quality that sets them apart from most contemporary poetry: They abound in the rigorous, clear-headed faith of the Christian tradition. Even before she became a Christian believer, Kenyon told Bill Moyers, she began to see "the spiritual dimension that poetry could have, an almost priestly function for the poet."

In Otherwise, Jane Kenyon has fulfilled her vocation.


1. Quotations from Jane Kenyon speaking with Bill Moyers are from the 1993 PBS special "A Life Together: Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon," presented in Bill Moyers, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (Doubleday, 1995), 219-38.

2. Quotations from Donald Hall speaking with Terry Gross are from a tape of Fresh Air (WHYY, Philadelphia) broadcast on NPR member stations in April 1996.

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