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My friend and fellow blogger Sally Reed (and the writer behind Butter and Lightning) recently posted a very moving message about grief, suffering and loss. I hope you will take a moment to visit her site and read it in its entirety. In her most recent post she included an exquisite poem by Jane Kenyon which I have included below. It speaks for itself.

Happiness

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

–Jane Kenyon

About Jane Kenyon (1947 – 1995): An American poet who was New Hampshire’s poet laureate when she died from leukemia. She was married to Donald Hall, also a poet. During her lifetime she published four collections: Constance (1993), Let Evening Come (1990), The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), and From Room to Room (1978). She also translated poems by the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon after having renewed my relationship with their poetry this weekend (See the posting below, The Third Thing.) I posted a poem by Hall yesterday that he wrote during her illness, but thought Kenyon deserved a few of her own too.

As Donald Hall wrote in The Third Thing, “poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears.”

Here are two by Kenyon, each with their own blending of the melancholy and sorrow of life with a celebration of it (or in the second poem, a celebration of life after life.) Both moved me deeply this morning.

Happiness

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

Notes from the Other Side

I 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.

When I started this blog in 2006, I did not anticipate how deeply satisfying it would be to develop companionship around content that matters to me. Sharing visual art and poetry are gestures that happen best outside of time, ones that are well suited for the disembodied 24/7 nature of cyberspheric reality. Discovery in this venue is much less invasive and more self-directed than getting a phone call from me at 2AM saying, “You have to see (or read) this!”

Connection based on content matters to me, even more than I had supposed. So of course I was thrilled when my new poetry pal Pam McGrath sent me some excerpts from an article, The Third Thing, by Donald Hall.

The relationship between two extraordinary poets, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, has become something of a legend in the world of contemporary poetry. There are many salient narratives in the story of their life together: The theme of two artists supporting each other’s work; the challenge of two highly individualistic people cohabiting with respect and kindness for each other; the burden of extreme suffering and grief (Hall had several bouts of cancer, and Kenyon suffered from depression. Eventually it was leukemia that ended her life); the ongoing longing for meaning, authenticity, expression. In speaking of this extraordinary marriage as its sole survivor, Hall exudes dignity and grace. I love his concept of the “third thing”, which of course can take so many forms in a relationship.

Thank you Pam, for this and for being such an engaging fellow traveler.

What we did: love. We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly…

Meantime we lived in the house of poetry, which was also the house of love and grief; the house of solitude and art; the house of Jane’s depression and my cancers and Jane’s leukemia. When someone died whom we loved, we went back to the poets of grief and outrage, as far back as Gilgamesh; often I read aloud Henry King’s “The Exequy,” written in the seventeenth century after the death of his young wife. Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears. As I sat beside Jane in her pain and weakness I wrote about pain and weakness. Once in a hospital I noticed that the leaves were turning. I realized that I had not noticed that they had come to the trees. It was a year without seasons, a year without punctuation. I began to write “Without” to embody the sensations of lives under dreary, monotonous assault. After I had drafted it many times I read it aloud to Jane. “That’s it, Perkins,” she said. “You’ve got it. That’s it.” Even in this poem written at her mortal bedside there was companionship.

From Donald Hall’s poetry volume, “Without”:

Her Long Illness

Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurse’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.

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