Last night I read a lot of sad poems. I love sadness. It’s not an emotion I fear, and maybe for that reason my favorite poems are often about loss, death, and grief (I have a major “thing” for break-up songs, too). And I got to thinking about one of the saddest poetry stories out there: poet Jane Kenyon, who died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 47 and left behind her husband, poet Donald Hall. The story is sad for many reasons; one, because Donald Hall himself had had cancer, and shortly after he learned he would survive Jane Kenyon became ill and died quite quickly; and also because of his famous book Without (Mariner Books, 1998), which is one of the finest books of poetry I’ve ever read and which has become something of a primer about grief. After she died, Jane Kenyon’s book Otherwise was published, and to read the two side-by-side–well, I recommend it.
So for today, I wanted to post a poem by Jane Kenyon, written, one assumes, when Donald Hall was sick; after, one by Donald Hall, written after Jane Kenyon died. To me, the two poems speak to one another beautifully. Enjoy.
Afternoon at MacDowell
On a windy summer day the well-dressed
trustees occupy the first row
under the yellow and white striped canopy.
Their drive for capital is over,
and for a while this refuge is secure.
Thin after your second surgery, you wear
the gray summer suit we bought eight
years ago for momentous occasions
in warm weather. My hands rest in my lap,
under the fine cotton shawl embroidered
with mirrors that we bargained for last fall
in Bombay, unaware of your sickness.
The legs of our chairs poke holes
in the lawn. The sun goes in and out
of the grand clouds, making the air alive
with golden light, and then, as if heaven’s
spirits had fallen, everything’s somber again.
After music and poetry we walk to the car.
I believe in the miracles of art, but what
prodigy will keep you safe beside me,
fumbling with the radio while you drive
to find late innings of a Red Sox game?
(© Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press, 2005)
Back home from the grave,
behind my desk I made
a gallery of Janes:
at twenty-four, with long
straight hair sitting
beside me in my Piitsburgh
Pirate suit; standing
recessive in shadow
wearing her nearsighted
glasses, Kearsarge behind us;
stretched out glamorous
in her bathing suit
at Key West; foxy
and beautiful at forty-five;
embracing me last year;
front page of the Sunday
in color with the headline:
POET JANE KENYON DIES
AT HER HOME IN WILMOT.
(© Donald Hall, from Without, Mariner Books, 1998)