Monday, September 22, 2008

Tale of Two Poets

I have great respect for poets. They have the ability to say beautifully, in few words, what many of us spend a lifetime trying to convey. There are two poets I want to mention in this post... two poets whose lives were intertwined.

Jane Kenyon was a student at the University of Michigan when she fell in love with her writing professor, Donald Hall. Though 19 years her senior, they married in 1972 and began a successful life together as poets. They spent the majority of their 23 year marriage on Donald Hall's family farm in New Hampshire.

In 1989 Donald was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. He underwent resection and chemotherapy and was given a 1 in 3 chance to survive another 5 years. It was utter tragedy then when Jane herself was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1994.

As she battled and lost a rugged 15 month fight with leukemia, she and Donald worked on "Otherwise: New and Selected Poems" published soon after her death. One of the few poems she wrote referencing her illness:

"The Sick Wife"
The sick wife stayed in the car/while he bought a few groceries./Not yet fifty,/she had learned what it's like /not to be able to button a button.

It was the middle of the day-/and so only mothers with small children/or retired couples/stepped through the muddy parking lot.

cleaning swung and gleamed on hangers/in the cars of the prosperous./How easily they moved-/with such freedom,/even the old and relatively infirm.

The windows began to steam up./The cars on either side of her/pulled away so briskly
that it made her sick at heart.

Another poem from the book is a reflection of a loss in Jane's life:

"What Came to Me"
I took the last/dusty piece of china/out of the barrel. /It was your gravy boat,/with a hard, brown/drop of gravy still/on the porcelain lip. /I grieved for you then as I never had before.

If you read through Jane's book first and then move on to the book Donald Hall compiled in the days and weeks before and then following his wife's death, you may find yourself grieving with him. His compilation of poems entitled "Without" are an exquisite look into the lives of this couple dealing with dying.

Here are 3 different poems by Donald Hall dealing with the medical world, faith, and saying goodbye.

First the physical struggle:
"As Dr. McDonald plunged/ the tube down her throat, her body thrashed/on the table. When she/ struggled to rise, the doctor's voice cajoled,/ "Jane, Jane," until/ blood-oxygen numbers dropped toward zero/ and her face went blue./ The young nurse slipped oxygen into Jane's/ nostrils and punched/ a square button. Eight doctors burst/ into the room, someone/ pounded Jane's chest, Dr. McDonald/ gave orders like/ a submarine captain among depth charges,/ the nurse fixed/ a nebulizer over Jane's mouth and nose-/ and she breathed.

Meanwhile,/ understanding that his wife might be dying/ before his eyes, he stood still,/ careful to keep out of everyone's way."

Second the spiritual struggle:
"When the minister,/ Alice Ling,/ brought communion to the house/ or the hospital bed,/ or when they held hands as Alice prayed,/ grace was evident/ but not the comfort of mercy or reprieve./ The embodied figure/ on the cross still twisted under the sun."

Lastly, the emotional struggle:
"One by one they came,/ the oldest and dearest, to say goodbye/ to this friend of the heart./ At first she said their names, wept, and touched;/ then she smiled; then/ turned one mouth-corner up. On the last day/ she stared silent goodbyes/ with her hands curled and her eyes stuck open."

Often we find in art that some of the richest creations come from places of deep despair and tragedy. It is certainly true of the poems of these two connected souls, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon.

If you are looking for more check out Bill Moyers documentary "Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon: A life together" produced just before Jane's diagnosis. Donald Hall also has a more prose filled book called "The Best Day and the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon"

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