Sunday, July 09, 2006

Finding Jane Kenyon at last

Finding Jane Kenyon at last

Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. Jane Kenyon, Graywolf. 1996.

I avoided Jane Kenyon for a long time, and it wasn't her fault. I skirted the nearly cultish admiration that followed her death, mistrusting it. There's so much baggage there -- cancer, early death, marriage to Donald Hall, a great poet in his own right. What hope was there for the poems, standing alone without all that context? It doesn't take more than a few personal losses and a few experienced or observed illnesses to drive a reader to madness, either obsessively seeking out or obsessively avoiding those little pockets of the poetry world that feed on the same.

Well, it's been over ten years, time enough for me to get over it. No point in rejecting outright, without examination, someone's entire body of work simply because I'm worn out (who isn't?) with a world of sickness and death.

And so, dear Reader, I read the poems. Like the fabled plums in the refrigerator, consumed in the privacy of a dark and empty kitchen, they were delicious.

It's too bad they're surrounded by that circumference of death and admiration. This collection even has a lovely and respectful afterword by Donald Hall, tying a knot in that string. It's good to have the information about how the poems were pulled together, and how much of the arrangement was Jane Kenyon's own doing. And it is a beautiful thing to see so intimately inside a marriage of both minds and hearts -- how difficult is it to weather a marriage where both people have the same ambitions and the arena is small, and how much more difficult to weather the losses of this physical life. The baggage is beautiful, and fine leather, but still it is . . . baggage. I may be overly sensitive to the idea of attaching such baggage to women's poetry. Lots of excellent men poets have their own baggage that is well known and forms some kind of circle around their work -- the world of poetry has its share of illness, bad marriages, suicides. But usually with men poets, the work stands alone in terms of how it is published. The myths and suitcases accompany, but in separate containers. Why is it that Berryman, for example, can be suicidal and clinically depressed and his poems are great (nonetheless) but with Plath, Sexton and now Kenyon one is left wondering if the poems depend on the baggage? (They shouldn't -- the poems are absolutely able to stand on their own. The fact that we won't let them says more about how women are read than about how women write.) It's hard to find Plath-Sexton-Kenyon published without some reference to the baggage accompanying, in the same vehicle (foreword, afterword, etc.).

Willa Cather was right to order all her letters burned. If she was depressed or distraught, we'll never know, and we'll read her as gladly as ever.

So, I'm sorry to have avoided Jane Kenyon all this time, but I had good reason. And I'm glad to have gotten over it, because her poems are very good.

She has a lovely sense of structure, with sounds and near-rhymes accumulating. She uses structures that I can tell she's crafted carefully, but that usually are not a "traditional" or received structure. The positioning of the near-rhymes and line breaks is carefully different, except in rare cases where the end rhymes fall happily in tow, usually at the end of a stanza. The poems read beautifully aloud.

Drink, Eat, Sleep

I never drink from his blue tin cup
speckled with white
without thinking of stars on a clear,
cold night -- of Venus blazing low
over the leafless trees; and Canis
great and small -- dogs without flesh,
fur, blood, or bone . . . dogs made of light,
apparitions of cold light, with black
and trackless spaces in between. . . .
The angel gave a little book
to the prophet, telling him to eat --
eat and tell of the end of time.
Strange food, infinitely strange,
but the pages were like honey
to his tongue. . . .

At the Summer Solstice

Noon heat. And later, hotter still. . . .
The neighbor's son rides up and down the field
turning the hay -- turning it with flourishes.

The tractor dips into the low clovery place
where melt from the mountain
comes down in the spring, and wild
lupine grows. Only the boy's blond head
can be seen; but then he comes smartly
up again -- to whirl, deft, around
the pear tree near the barn. Brave . . .

bravissimo. The tall grass lies -- cut,
turned, raked, and dry. Later his father
comes down the lane with the baler. I hear
the steady thumping all afternoon.

So hot, so hot today. . . . I will stay in our room
with the shades drawn, waiting for you
to come with sleepy eyes, and pass your fingers
lightly, lightly up my thighs.

This is just the first two stanzas from Twilight: After Haying

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

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