Reading Jane Kenyon

Every adult novel I pick up these days gets put down again. Too dark. Too much tragedy. I already know this story. Too much drinking. I don’t care.

But I can pick up my volume of Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems (2005), and I am instantly in a world I understand and want to be in. I’ve liked Jane Kenyon since I first learned about her, but right now I feel like she is a true kindred spirit.

Here’s a poem by her to make us think about summer again.

Peonies at Dusk

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.

— pg. 254

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A Poem by Wendell Berry

Sometimes, when I feel the need for something stronger than prose, I search in vain for a poem that sounds good and beautiful and meaningful. I don’t think this means most poems are bad. A lot of them are, but I think what’s really happening is that I’m looking for a poem that says what I’m feeling but I’m not able to express in words. And that’s hard to find, but not impossible. Tonight I turn to Wendell Berry, who is a kindred spirit.

I went away only
a few hundred steps
up the hill, and turned
and started home.
And then I saw
the pasture green under
the trees, the open
hillside, the little ponds,
our house, cistern,
woodshed, and barn,
the river bending in
its valley, our garden
new-planted beside it.
All around, the woods
that had been stark
in the harsh air
of March, had turned
soft with new leaves.
Birdsong had returned
to the branches:
the stream sang
in the fold of the hill.
In its time and great patience
beauty had come upon us,
greater than I had imagined.

— Poem IV from 1992, A Timbered Choir (1998)

Seasons happen in my life, and not just four times a year. Sometimes more often, sometimes less often. But all seasons have a stark, harsh time, a waiting period, an unfolding of beauty, a time of singing, and a time of leaving off. This is the way the world works. Why should I expect it all to be the unfolding of beauty time? Why should I be impatient and hurt when I know I only need to wait and things will change? And why should I expect my seasons to look like all the others? For all I know, my best season on earth may be a day or two of incomparable joy that is enjoyed in the privacy of my own heart, and is then immediately drawn into the time of leaving off. And that’s okay. That’s how it works.

Fall

The following excerpt is from a prose poem by Robert Bly entitled “Fall” (1962). It reminds me of the farm I grew up on, which is vastly different from the farm I now live on (even though I’m only a quarter-mile northwest). The seasons always seemed a little more pronounced on my dad’s farm. Here a woods to the west of the house blocks parts of the world.

The dusk has come, a glow in the west, as if seen through the isinglass on old coal stoves, and the cows stand around the barn door; now the farmer looks up at the paling sky reminding him of death, and in the fields the bones of the corn rustle faintly in the last wind, and the half moon stands in the south.

Now the lights from barn windows can be seen through bare trees.

 

Ekphrastic Poetry Challenge

Writing poetry about a specific work of art is a good exercise to keep my writing skills sharp, and it conveniently combines my double interest in art and literature. The poetry magazine, Rattle, puts on a new Ekphrastic Challenge every month where any poet can submit a poem (for free) written about the work of art Rattle chooses. Then, after the month is over, the editor of Rattle chooses a winning poem and the artist of the artwork chooses a winning poem. I’ve never won, but it has been fun trying. Sometimes the artwork is such that I have nothing to say about it. But the art for June is my favorite yet! So I thought I’d share it. I already submitted a prose poem, but I might try to write another one. The country road is an image my whole life rides down (Oooo… maybe I can use that metaphor in my poem…)

Here’s the link: http://www.rattle.com/ekphrastic/. Enjoy!

Deep Light

From far a light, maybe a hill ranch
remote and unvisited, beams on the horizon
when we pass; then it is gone.
For the rest of our lives that far place
waits; it’s an increment, one more
hollow that slips by out there, almost
a gift, an acquaintance taken away.

Still, beyond all ranches the deep
night waits, breathing when we breathe,
always ready to offer new light,
over and over, so long as we search
for something so faint most people
won’t know, even when it is found.

— by William Stafford, 1993

I can see my parents’ yard light from my kitchen window, and early this evening I happened to look out there (I look out while I’m filling someone’s water glass from the fridge water dispenser), and the yard light blinked off. I actually braced myself, waiting for the electricity outage to travel down the road to my house. Except, I’m pretty sure it goes the other way. Our house would go out first. It was probably just the wind blowing snow across my vision of their light. The wind is howling cold tonight.

And it was that sort of night, too, when I had about given up searching for lights in the darkness. I’m still not smiling, not even on the inside. But there were faint things, I suppose. My daughter’s preference for Robin Hood over Magic School Bus books. An encouraging email I hadn’t expected. A warm quilt in a cold room. I pray I never really, truly stop searching for those lights.

The Children’s Hour

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

— by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1860

I needed to remind myself that this time of my life is The Children’s Hour and not The Crazy-Loud-Yelling-Complaining-Whining Hour. I really do love all three of my own blue-eyed banditti.

The Country of Marriage

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

— from “The Country of Marriage” by Wendell Berry, 1971

“The forest is mostly dark…” I can’t agree enough. This quote is from stanza III of a longer poem in which the speaker writes about his life of love with his wife. Here I find beauty at the gentleness of married love. When is the last time I’ve read anything about gentleness and marriage? I don’t know. It might have been in a Christian marriage book, in a section written to the husband, telling him to be gentle with his wife. But does anyone assume marriage is gentle in itself? Passionate, confusing, difficult, long-suffering… but usually not gentle. In this part of the poem, I think we get several aspects: the gentle beauty, the blessings, the courage needed, and the sense of uncharted territory. Because every marriage is different, right? That’s why those marriage books just don’t work. They are good tries, but I think Wendell Berry is more honest than most Christian living authors. Here we find that the dark mysteries of marriage, rather than being the inconsistencies that pull people apart, are more blessed than the obvious, well-lit truths about marriage. I can say that my husband and I have dark, mysterious inconsistencies; we are creatures of opposites. I need to be brave enough to keep on going into that forest of marriage day after day.