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By Joyce Peseroff
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2005 Joyce Peseroff
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IntroductionJane was witty, inventive, fun. She discovered that lengths of gutter made perfect pans for baking French bread. She patiently leveled and set in sand the large brick patio patterned behind her house. She also told me how much she enjoyed reading ads for extravagant handbags in the Sunday New York Times, and once we went to Bloomingdale's in Chestnut Hill for a free cosmetic consultation and makeover. When we met at the Mall of New Hampshire, halfway between Lexington and Wilmot, to exchange poems and news, Jane bought earrings and scarves in fine fabrics. Later we chose books for my daughter and her five grandchildren, including The Stupids Die, a title she adored, and the Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny, whose theology-"It's like the love of God!"-made her weep. She loved Mahler and Motown, Dutch paintings and poker-playing dog placemats, Beethoven and Mel Brooks, lotions and baths.
Once while Jane was working on Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova, she took me to Vera Sandomirsky Dunham's home on Long Island. Jane was choosing, with Vera's advice, several more poems to translate. I remember thick black volumes of Ahkmatova's work like a complete edition of the O.E.D., and how Vera read aloud several poems in Russian. I also remember Vera Dunham's oft-repeated, "This is impossible! It cannot be done!" after her reading: no poem in English, she believed, could properly render Akhmatova's sound, or her intricate form. For a while it did seem as if that day she would go not further. Then she sat with Jane, providing a literal translation, answering Jane's questions concerning connotation and tone, and explaining historical details such as what the "tree-lined drive" in "Tale of the Block Ring" might look like. The Dunhams' guest bathroom was scarlet, and before we left, Jane nudged me to notice Vera's full-length Russian sable coat in the hall closet. Later, Jane was ambitious to translate Akhmatova's masterpiece "Requiem," but, whether because of Vera's husband's illness, or Vera's, or her own, she never did. Perhaps she knew she had learned what her master had to teach her: a precise way of describing great emotional intensity through imagery as plain as a white stone in a deep well, or a winter glove put on the wrong hand.
If I had to pick one perfect, exemplary day I spent with Jane, it would be in late spring, 1993. She was visiting the college where I taught to take part in a twentieth-anniversary reading for Alice James Books. I joined her that morning at Symphony Hall (she and Don had season tickets for the BSO's Thursday open rehearsal). Over and over the singer repeated her gorgeous aria; Jane's pleasure was palpable. After the rehearsal we had lunch-probably in the Cinderella restaurant that served students delicious home-cooked pasta by day and became a tony boite at night-on our way to the original Filene's Basement, where Jane sorted through bins of sassy shoes, hunting for bargains. Then came the reading, old poems and new ones from Constance, which would be published later that year. It's possible that she read "No Steps," and I remember her saying that she'd written it partly for the pleasure of getting "ziplock plastic bag" into the language of a poem. An audience of students, faculty, fellow readers, and Boston friends filled the room-intent on every word-applauded, and bought books.
The tone of those books was often bleak. Jane enjoyed things of this world, but there's a terrifying longing for the void her poems-desire for oblivion, for nada, paralysis, immobility, or effacement in sleep's "frail wicker coracle." The newborn welcomed by shouts in "Caesarian" is shocked by light and noise. Entrance into the world is disordered (outside in, inside out), and introduction to the abyss. Kenyon's poems interrogate the abyss: why live, when life is suffering? Like Akhmatova, Kenyon knows trouble, the shadow between "love's tense joys and red delights."
Yet, throughout the body of her work, things-a stone warmed by sun, a wood thrush, a clothes pin, a long gray hair, hay bales, rushing water, peonies-answer existential doubt and dread. Whether gifts of the Holy Ghost, or "thoughts/in an unconflicted mind," they are preceptors. Kenyon's poems are not didactic but they always show us where to look. In "Depression in Early Winter," it's at a crescent of bare ground; in "Portrait of a Figure Near Water" it's a stone trough; in "Let Evening Come," it's everything. "Go to the pine to learn from the pine," Basho wrote four centuries ago; Keyon's work is a twentieth-century response. What adds pressure to these poems is the landscape in which so many of these objects reside. Fields, woods, ponds and streams, hayrick, shed, farmhouse, inn, general store-Kenyon describes a rural life that is fading fast. The whip-poor-will, dispossessed by men making hay, may be dispossessed for good, if fields become real estate. Kenyon's poems argue for the preservation of an ecology as strongly as anything by Gary Snyder, if more subtly. For how can we give the world our steady attention if its natural objects disappear?
Man-made objects, other than domestic ones-the snowplow, school clothes and satchels, the wineglass weary of holding wine-often conduct disquiet and grief rather than joy. Even music and books-the Chopin and Nabokov that pained her father, and the Keats she loves but cannot bear to read him-may be charged with suffering. Surely there is something of Wordsworth in Kenyon's gaze. Wordsworth saw nature's beauty as proof of God's hand in creation; by delighting in the scent of roses, plush of moss, play of sky and clouds, man learns to love his creator. But Kenyon doesn't write just about beautiful things. The hen's food is "reptilian," snow and rain can be violent, the mouse leaves behind its shit and smell. So why this feeling of joy when Kenyon writes, "Now is her time to thrive"? Whether Kenyon's eyes are on the sparrow or the skunk, we are persuaded to invest them with complete attention, as Kenyon's words-and possibly the Word-have. We may live in the abyss, God may be distant, indifferent, or dead, there maybe no earthly reason to lift an arm from a chair-all the same, Kenyon does the work of discovering all that this world is made of.
She didn't much like cities or suburbs, places where it was possible to overhear and yet avoid a neighbor's pain. Jane didn't avoid anything. The intimacy of voice in a Jane Kenyon poem erases the line between her vision and the reader's. The structure of her sentences reveals a mind in motion-a strategy learned from Elizabeth Bishop, but employed differently. Kenyon, avoiding nothing, doesn't insist on conclusion. The ellipse-something she admired in Louis Simpson's poems-indicates the end of one thought before it flows into another. Kenyon's poems seem lifted directly from the poet's consciousness.
She once described writing poetry as taking off her clothes in front of everyone, which implies exhibitionism, seduction, frankness, and bravery. These are qualities necessary to a voice essentially alone, confronting space both infinite and eternal. One needs quiet, solitude, and belief in the importance of perception in order to measure the progress of a beating heart.
Excerpted from Simply Lasting by Joyce Peseroff Copyright © 2005 by Joyce Peseroff. Excerpted by permission.
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