Saturday, November 22, 2008

On Jane Kenyon

It's hard to believe—for me, anyway—but I've never read much of Jane Kenyon's poetry, at least not on its own, in one big gulp. The same is true of her husband, Donald Hall, who is most familiar to me (aside from his Poet Laureate stint) as the editor of the highly-influential Contemporary American Poetry anthology foisted upon me as an undergrad at the University of Michigan. (Wish I still had it; but like many things, especially as I have gotten older and found myself the owner of a home smaller in size than many previous apartments, it went the way of myriad books from that time, that is, to a second-hand shop or all-inclusive thrift store.)

But thanks to Graywolf Press, who kindly (desperately?) priced all their hardbacks at ten bucks apiece on the last day of Chicago's annual Printers Row Book Fair, I couldn't resist adding Kenyon's Collected Poems to my lofty pile. I'm glad I did. It's not a very imposing compendium—only four full-length books, two short posthumous tomes, a handful of uncollected poems, and twenty translations of poems by Anna Akhmatova—the fact that it's in hard cover makes it feel weightier than a paperback probably would. But it's quality, rather than quantity that counts, especially here. Reading these poems again, I searched for some abiding metaphor to describe what it is that makes them so special, yet so elusive. Then it hit me: Kenyon's style is almost transparent, so much so that while engrossed in her work you might miss the machinery that makes these poems tick. Like an old watch when it's disassembled, part of the pleasure is in observing the gears as they spin, working in tandem and making everything run smoothly. Not every poem—by Kenyon, or otherwise—would benefit from being taken apart, however. One might, on their own or on assignment, try it with any random poem, and arguably succeed in laying bare its innards; but not every poem would be as beautiful in pieces as it is whole, nor would those components necessarily reveal something of interest, much less merit about the poet who assembled them. Kenyon's poems are simple machines of deceptive agility and skill.

For my money, the most successful poems—I hesitate to say 'best', because there's plenty to like in all Kenyon's books—are found in From Room to Room, her first. “My Mother” is one example. I recently used it in my public school classes, as a writing prompt for 3rd through 6th graders. I suspected its plainspoken language would translate well with any age group, even in classes with many ESL students, and I was correct. It's not a poem I found on line, and I don't recall seeing it in any anthologies, but it's quite powerful as well as quietly powerful. Here it is, in its entirety:

My mother comes back from a trip downtown to the dime store. She
has brought me a surprise. It is still in her purse.

She is wearing her red shoes with straps across the in-step. They
fasten with small white buttons, like the eyes of fish.

She brings back zippers and spools of thread, yellow and green, for
her work, which always takes her far away, even though she works
upstairs, in the room next to mine.

She is wearing her blue plaid full-skirted dress with the large collar,
her hair fastened up off her neck. She looks pretty. She always dresses
up when she goes downtown.

Now she opens her straw purse, which looks like a small suitcase. She
hands me the new toy: a wooden paddle with a red rubber ball at-
tached to it by an elastic string. Sometimes when she goes downtown,
I think she will not come back.

Initially, Kenyon's poem reminds me of Weldon Kees' “For My Daughter”:

Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read
Beneath the innocence of morning flesh
Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh
Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;
The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,
Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen
That may be hers appear: foul, lingering
Death in certain war, the slim legs green.
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel
Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.
These speculations sour in the sun.
I have no daughter. I desire none.

Each poem startlingly reinvents itself in its final lines. For Kees, such misanthropic musings are mere speculations that, like (mother's?) milk, “sour in the sun.” What at first appears to be a young father's macabre preoccupation is instead a brazenly nihilistic dismissal of traditional family values. Kenyon, whose poem appears autobiographical, deals with a much different kind of horror in her denouement, when the child narrator says of her mother, “Sometimes when she goes downtown, / I think she will not come back.” Fear of abandonment trumps the loss of a child, when the child, in fact, is not there and never was. More than that—the idea of a child's mind preoccupied with the terror of losing a parent is far worse than an adult imagining an imaginary child's moral decay and inevitable death.

Stylistically, Kees' poem is also a much different animal than Kenyon's, but let me get back to the latter. What I love about “My Mother” is manifold: the almost reportorial details, wrought using basic colors and plain speech; the linear narrative, which nonetheless allows readers access to elements of an accrued past—mother, who works “upstairs, in the room next to mine,” but whose work “always takes her far away” (physically as well as psychologically), whose trips downtown, for which she “always dresses / up,” may be purely innocent but which cause no small amount of anxiety for the daughter; even the line break “at- / tached,” which suggests the motion of the paddle ball toy with its elastic string mother has brought back as a gift...to assuage her daughter's fears, mother's own guilt, or both? Also its two accessible similes—shoe buttons, “like the eyes of fish,” and the straw purse, “which looks like a small suitcase” (echoing the daughter's worries that mom may leave and never come back). How accurate, imagistically, as well as emotionally resonant.

Very few of Kenyon's poems spill over onto even a second page. In later books, such as Constance, she pushes herself into composing longer narratives, such as “Having It Out with Melancholy” and the more blatantly autobiographical “The Stroller,” but these are two rare exceptions. Her style is lean and sinewy, and while much of her work is set in the country (where she lived with Hall) and peppered with allusions to crops, hay, lakes, screen doors, flora and fauna, and the stillness one associates with rural living, I would hesitate to call her a “country” poet like Wendell Berry. She seems to be influenced less by place than by interior factors, her writing coming from some deep reservoir that could be full of well or fluoridated and pipe-fed water—it hardly matters what the source is. What's more important is Kenyon's candor and the force of her words.

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