The “Luminous Particular”
By Jane Kenyon
St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005, 357 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Joyce Peseroff
I first met Jane Kenyon in the early 1970s in Ann Arbor, where I was a young writer and visiting fellow at the University of Michigan. Shortly after, Kenyon and her husband Donald Hall moved to New Hampshire, and I moved to the Boston area. I resumed a friendship that would grow to include coediting the literary magazine Green House; working together in the writers’ cooperative Alice James Books; and, for over a decade, exchanging poems in a literary workshop together with Alice Mattison. Our workshop ended only when Jane’s treatment for the leukemia that killed her in 1995 made meeting impossible. Alice, when asked by National Public Radio’s Noah Adams to evaluate Kenyon’s poetry on the first anniversary of her death, cut him off, saying, “Jane is great!” Like Alice, I’m in no position to be an objective critic. Instead, I’d like to take the publication of Kenyon’s Collected Poems as an occasion to examine the distinctive qualities of her art, to consider her as a woman writer, and to place her among others—mostly American but including the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whom she read with love and ambition.
In a 1989 interview with Bill Moyers, Kenyon explained how she negotiated her marriage to the well-known, older Hall:
Don is at the point in his career where he’s getting to be thought of as quite a statesman of poetry, someone with a lot of answers. And he is someone with a lot of answers. He knows things nobody else knows. But I also know things nobody else knows. It’s funny how everything in your life, every experience, everything in your reading, everything in your thinking, in your spiritual life—you bring it all to your work when you sit down to write. And he knows what he knows and I know what I know.
Throughout the Collected Poems, Kenyon connects the smallest things she knows to the largest, whether these are the noise of a hen flinging a single pebble—“Never in eternity the same sound— / a small stone falling on a red leaf” (“Things”) or grief delivered by a gravy boat with “a hard, brown/drop of gravy still/on the porcelain lip” (“What Came to Me”). Whatever the subject—the inscrutable nature of happiness (“Happiness”); moments of ecstatic joy and spiritual doubt (“Briefly It Enters and Briefly Speaks”; “Staying at Grandma’s”) or struggles with depression (“Having It Out with Melancholy”)—Kenyon insists on the value of paying attention. Her poetics is based in what she called the “luminous particular,” and her quest for it was the backbone of an art she characterized as “brief musical cries of the spirit”.
The cries are expressed through a female body. In an early poem (omitted from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems but included here), Kenyon writes frankly about “This long struggle to be at home / in the body, this difficult friendship” (“Cages”). Several poems in her first book, From Room to Room, suggest a body easily displaced or effaced, a concern Kenyon continues to address in later volumes. “From Room to Room” describes a speaker “Out of my body for a while, / weightless in space” as a result of her move from Ann Arbor. Coming back to bed after seeing “the thermometer read twenty-four below,” she finds “the pillows cold, as if I had not been there two minutes before” (“The Cold”). In “Full Moon in Winter,” her shadow “lies down in the cold…/ like someone tired / of living in a body, / needy and full of desire.” Certainly these poems prefigure those about depression that begin to appear in The Boat of Quiet Hours.
What sustains Kenyon, and keeps her from joining her shadow in the snow, is a community of women she intuits in and around the space she inhabits. In “Finding a Long Gray Hair,” she senses, while washing floors, the “motions of other women / who have lived in this house.” When she finds physical evidence of their bodies in “a long gray hair/floating in the pail,” she feels her “life added to theirs.” Ancestors whose photographs appear in the first line of “From Room to Room” become intimates. In “Hanging Pictures in Nanny’s Room,” Kenyon decorates her study with “a poster of Mary Cassatt’s ‘Women Bathing’” and imagines another woman’s body: “No doubt Nanny bent here summer mornings, her dress down about her waist, water dripping through her fingers.” By the fifth paragraph of this prose poem, the point of view has shifted from the first person to the second, as the speaker thinks herself into details of Nanny’s sexual life: “And if people weren’t good enough, if your husband…was a philanderer, well, you could move back to the house where you were born.” In From Room to Room’s final poem, a whippoorwill, joyous in tall grass, announces, “I belong to the Queen of Heaven!” Belonging to a female body—exemplified by a real gray hair, created through sympathetic imagination, and asserted by a symbol of the Holy Spirit—is essential to Kenyon’s artistic perspective.
hen Robert Bly, after reading Kenyon’s poems in manuscript, suggested that she apprentice herself to a master, Kenyon said, “I cannot take a man as my master.” Bly then recommended Anna Akhmatova. Not finding any translations to her liking, Kenyon began working on her own. This project would stretch any writer’s vocabulary. Kenyon also learned from Akhmatova’s short lyrics how to join imagery with intense emotion (something that would become Kenyon’s signature): “Already the narrow canals have stopped flowing; / water freezes. / Nothing will ever happen here— / Not ever!” (“Evening”).
Equally important is what this project taught her about syntax.
Wild honey has the scent of freedom,
dust—of a ray of sun,
a girl’s mouth—of a violet,
and gold—has no perfume.
and like an apple—love,
but we have found out forever
that blood smells only of blood.
Kenyon writes in her note to this poem, “It seemed important to keep the abstractions—freedom and love—in parallel positions within their stanzas. I couldn’t bring myself to say “Of water smells the mignonette…”—that’s not English. So I left out the verb and invented ‘watery.’” Compare the last poem in From Room to Room to the first poem in The Boat of Quiet Hours, and you’ll see the difference between:
Fat spider by the door.
Brow of hayfield, blue
eye of pond.
Sky at night like an open well.
(“Now That We Live”)
From here I see a single red cloud
impaled on the Town Hall weathervane.
Now the horses are back in their stalls,
and the dogs nowhere in sight
that made them run and buck
in the brittle morning light.
(“Evening at a Country Inn”)
The strained syntax—the natural order of lines four through six would be “the dogs that made them run and buck in the brittle morning light are nowhere in sight”—mirrors the strained situation in the poem, with the speaker anxious about a companion who “laughed only once all day” while “thinking about the accident— / of picking slivered glass from his hair.” The assonance of accident / picking / slivered / his combines with the hard consonants of thinking / accident / picking / glass to create the experience of a windshield splintering in the reader’s ear.
Other women poets Kenyon read with care included Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson. She kept a picture of Rich above her desk, and several of Kenyon’s poems allude to Bishop’s directly: “But sometimes what looks like disaster / is disaster” (“The Pond at Dusk”) answers “One Art”; and the situation provoking “The Argument”—viewing a corpse at a funeral—nods to “First Death in Nova Scotia.” Both poets are interested in what thinking feels like, but while Bishop qualifies, backtracks, and amplifies her observations, as if thinking out loud, Kenyon seems to erase the boundary between speaker and audience. Poems framed by ellipses reject the sense of beginning or end, and seem lifted directly from the writer’s consciousness:
…a mote. A little world. Dusty. Dusty.
The universe is dust. Who can bear it?
Christ comes. The women bathe his feet
with tears, bring spices, find the empty tomb,
burst out to tell the men, are not believed….
Like Dickinson, Kenyon often infuses spiritual longing with psychic pain, using the Bible as her lexicon. “Depression” results from 1) being a woman, 2) knowing something sacred, and 3) not being believed. She shares Dickinson’s wariness toward God the father, preferring the “son / whose blood spattered / the hem of his mother’s robe” (“Looking at Stars”); trying to comfort her dying father, Kenyon offers John 14: “I go to prepares a place for you”:
…“Fine. Good,’ he said.
“But what about Matthew? ‘You,
therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father
is perfect.’” And he wept.
(“We Let the Boat Drift”)
In her longest poem, “Having It Out with Melancholy,” Kenyon turns the language of spiritual ecstasy inside out. The “unholy ghost” of depression violates her in a travesty of annunciation, “pressing / the bile of desolation into every pore.” An early draft ended with “Credo,” a Protestant black mass saluting “the mutilator of souls” with a line of scripture: “There is nothing I can do / against your coming. / When I awake, I am still with thee.” In the finished poem, Kenyon allows her despair—assuaged by “pharmaceutical wonders”—to be lifted by love for the hermit thrush’s “bright unequivocal eye”; like Dickinson, she finds solace in creation’s clay despite doubts about the Creator.
In late poems like “Happiness,” “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993,” “Reading Aloud to My Father,” and “Woman, Why Are You Weeping?” Kenyon becomes more discursive and speculative, directing her scrupulous attention to broader details of history, politics, and philosophical inquiry. One closes the book imagining the poems that remain unwritten, the things Jane Kenyon knew that she never got to tell anyone. What she accomplished in the three decades of her writing life, now gathered finally in the Collected Poems, will sustain readers who crave what Kenyon called “the inside of one person speaking to the inside of another.” Here is the world made palpable by a patient intelligence—honest, radiant, and rare.
Joyce Peseroff is editor of Simply Lasting, Writers on Jane Kenyon and author of four books of poems, including Eastern Mountain Time. She directs the creative writing program at University of Massachusetts, Boston.