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Doing the Work of Love: An Afternoon with Jane Kenyon

260px-Jane_KenyonWhile I did not know of the poetry of the late Jane Kenyon until after her death in 1995, I am glad I found her when I did.  A kindred spirit to Mary Oliver, who is one of my favorite poets, her poetry also has a rich simplicity --- is accessible, delicate, and yet profound.  Images of home and nature abound, and a subtle faith and hope permeates the air of her poems, even if they often allude to her lifelong struggle with depression.

Take this one, for example, entitled "Afternoon in the House:"

It's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I know that sprawl, those favored places, that quiet that settles on the house, that hyper-consciousness bred of aloneness that makes you sense that the very walls are listening, leaning in, waiting to hear.  It's all so ordinary, and yet under her economic pen, buffered by considerable white space, it becomes extraordinary, each word so carefully chosen.

She goes on:

I turn on the radio.  Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cats request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

And that makes me look up The Meadow Mouse since, after all, no poem about a cat can be bad, can it?  And yet I realize, in the reading, that the cats enjoyed it like we might anticipate a scrumptious meal, licking their chops.  Reading "Do I imagine he no longer trembles/ When I come close to him?/ He seems no longer to tremble," I fear it's not empathy they feel for the poor mouse but something more elemental, and base, and so my instinct about cats is confirmed: they are out for themselves, won't ever be accused of saving children from burning houses or lying down on their master's (if that word is ever accurate) graves.  And so I wonder if Kenyon granted the request.  I doubt it.  Rather, it demonstrates her sense perhaps that not only cats but her own species might not be generous.  And that, for Kenyon, might have fed her depression.

I was surprised to read the first line of the final stanza, where she says

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze 

because, inexplicably, I just wrote a line nearly like that in a blog post just a couple days ago when, awake in the middle of the night, I said that the listening you do at that wee hour is "like you are hyper-attuned to the settling of the house, like some ancient creature sinking back down on its haunches long after its occupants have retired."  You know it's bad when you take to quoting yourself, and yet why did I channel a phrase uttered by Jane Kenyon when I had not read her poem in perhaps six years?

The ending of that stanza, and of the poem, is key to understanding her mental anguish in the midst of this idyllic setting of the familiar.  Cats dozing.  Plants leaning.  A settled home. She says

I know you are with me, plants,
and cats --- and even so, I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect

Are they with her?  For Kenyon even a good day held within it the seed of a bad one, a sense that the shoe had to fall at some point and the world would come crashing down.  Who knows what else frightened her, when even the cats are full of malevolent possibility?  I don't mean to be hard on cats.  They figure prominently in Kenyon's poems, often dozing, sometimes providing humor, and yet for her nothing could be taken at face value, the sinister lurking beyond the benign.

One phrase, repeated in her poem, "Otherwise," the title to a collection of her work, tells me of her commitment to live even when she felt otherwise: "All morning I did the work of love."  More than fear or sadness, her poems tell of hope and faith and love, and that trilogy is worth hearing about over and over and over.

Want to read Jane Kenyon?  Start with "Otherwise."  You'll find much to love in her descriptions of the ordinary.  You might even make your own poem.

[The photo of Kenyon at her typewriter is publicly available via her publisher's website.  Does anyone type anymore?  Yes.  It's good to see.]