During my long years working as an administrative assistant, I would sometimes be privy to the formal written evaluations given yearly to senior staffers who reported to the high-ranking executive for whom I worked. In one of these reviews, a VP was termed “very low key.” This was not a compliment. Though the woman did fine work, she simply did not conform to the high-spirited dynamism that was a feature of that corporation’s culture. I liked the woman immensely; what others found low key I found calming. There was a stillness about her, a zen.
The poetry of Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) reminds me of that woman’s qualities. It is quiet, understated, spare; Chinese poetry was a potent early influence. Consider an early work, “Spring Evening”: Again the thrush affirms/both dusk and dawn. The frog/releases spawn in the warm/inlet of the pond. Ferns/rise with the crescent moon,/and the old farmer/waits to sow his corn. It reads like a terse Chinese or Japanese nature poem, with closely observed seasonal imagery.
Jane Kenyon wrote a modest type of poetry, to be sure. Her diction was the opposite of dazzling—she used a plain vocabulary and eschewed formalist virtuosities. Sometimes her poems trail off, literally, with ellipses. Clearly, she was less interested in bringing off ringing closures than in setting down moods and moments. She was also a victim of severe depression and a depressive’s headachey lassitude infiltrates much of her work. That is both its weakness and its strength. Joy comes through as well, as it does when depression lifts and the smallest moments seem sacred.
This selection of her poems may not be all that representative. I confess I prefer them over the highly spare works and those that trail off into weary inconclusiveness. Even so, I need her poems, even the less confident ones. They are a tonic to me; when I find my own work getting too baroque, I go to Jane’s more “low key” work for an antidote.
Jane Kenyon was famously married to the poet Donald Hall, who outlives her though he was decades older. They shared a contemplative, poetry-infused life in rural New Hampshire. She died of leukemia at the age of 47.
Man EatingThe man at the table across from mine
is eating yogurt. His eyes, following
the progress of the spoon, cross briefly
each time it nears his face. Time,
and the world with all its principalities,
might come to an end as prophesied
by the Apostle John, but what about
this man, so completely present
to the little carton with its cool,
sweet food, which has caused no animal
to suffer, and which he is eating
with a pearl-white plastic spoon.
Man WakingThe room was already light when
he awoke, and his body curled
like a grub suddenly exposed
when something dislodges a stone.
Work. He was more than an hour
late. Let that pass, he thought.
He pulled the covers over his head.
The smell of his skin and hair
offended him. Now he drew his legs
up a little more, and sent
his forehead down to meet his knees.
His knees felt cool.
A surprising amount of light
came through the blanket. He could
easily see his hand. Not dark enough,
not the utter darkness he desired.
In the Nursing HomeShe is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.
She has stopped running wide loops,
stopped even the tight circles.
She drops her head to feed; grass
is dust, and the creekbed’s dry.
Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.
Dutch InteriorsChrist has been done to death
in the cold reaches of northern Europe
a thousand thousand times.
and cheese appear on a plate
beside a gleaming pewter beaker of beer.
Now tell me that the Holy Ghost
does not reside in the play of light
A woman makes lace,
with a moist-eyed spaniel lying
at her small shapely feet.
Even the maid with the chamber pot
is here; the naughty, red-cheeked girl. . . .
And the merchant’s wife, still
in her yellow dressing gown
at noon, dips her quill into India ink
with an air of cautious pleasure.
A Boy Goes into the WorldMy brother rode off on his bike
into the summer afternoon, but
Mother called me back
from the end of the sandy drive:
“It’s different for girls.”
He’d be gone for hours, come back
with things: a cocoon, gray-brown
and papery around a stick;
a puff ball, ripe, wrinkled,
and exuding spores; owl pellets—
bits of undigested bone and fur;
and pieces of moss that might
have made toupees for preposterous
green men, but went instead
into a wide-necked jar for a terrarium.
He mounted his plunder on poster
board, gluing and naming
each piece. He has long since
forgotten those days and things, but
I at last can claim them as my own.
From Having it Out with Melancholy5 Once There Was Light
Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors—those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up, I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.
A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink-fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.
Winter LambsAll night snow came upon us
with unwavering intent—
small flakes not meandering
but driving thickly down. We woke
to see the yard, the car and road
The neighbors’ ewes are lambing
in this stormy weather. Three
lambs born yesterday, three more
Felix the ram looked
proprietary in his separate pen
while fatherhood accrued to him.
The panting ewes regarded me
with yellow-green, small-
I have a friend who is pregnant—
plans gone awry—and not altogether
pleased. I don’t say she should
be pleased. We are creation’s
property, its particles, its clay
as we fall into this life,
agree or disagree.
Notes from the Other SideI divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.
Now there is no more catching
one’s own eye in the mirror,
there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course
no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing
of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.
The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,
and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
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