Once There Was Light

Once There Was Light, A study on Jane Kenyon ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT (Published in Poetry Now, October 2005, Vol.11, No. 10) Like Russia’s Anna Akhmatova, whom Jane Kenyon translated in 1985 with Vera Sandomirsky Dunham, Jane Kenyon employs images that create emotional pressure, that are told with such accuracy that the reader becomes witness to what Kenyon herself has observed. Jane Kenyon writes about ordinary life with a fierce clarity. She is a poet of pictorial precision, of deliberate control, and writes much in the same vein as her forerunners Anna Akhmatova and Elizabeth Bishop. Never does she “prettify” her work with the superfluous, for she finds the magic in ordinary situations, and she takes those moments and turns them into quiet epiphanies. Kenyon says in her introduction to Twenty Poems/Anna Akhmatova, “I love the sudden twists these poems take, often in the last line.” This can also be said of Jane Kenyon, as is evidenced in “Man Waking.” Kenyon starts the poem with a commonplace observation: “The room was already light when he awoke,” but as he draws his knees to his forehead, the covers now pulled completely over him, she expands the poem into larger implications: “Not dark enough, /not the utter darkness he desired.” Her timing is perfect. She has saved the poem’s dramatic moment for the end, and has built up to that moment with keen timing. The man in the poem is an hour late for work but he lets that pass. The smell of his skin offends him. Underneath the covers he sees his hand in the light that tunnels through his blankets, and finally it is not dark enough, not the complete darkness he desires. The speaker in “Man Waking,” through empathetic capability, becomes the man desiring the absolute quiet of darkness. With uncompromising resolve, she writes in “Prognosis” of the owl that settles down and, “The bough did not sway.” The speaker in this poem is out for an early morning walk. There is a chill in the air as there is in the poem. Her mind lurches forward as though about to tumble over some precipice, but what pulls her back is evidenced in the natural world. When an owl passes it becomes an symbol of death. As her feet grope for place, so too does her mind, and she makes a seemingly simple childlike assertion, “The owl in not/like a crow.” A crow would make a raspy caw as it flies by, but the owl, like death itself, flies away before the speaker in the poem actually hears it, and when it lands it does so with absolute resolve. Using only five stanzas, written in couplets—each word unit a magnet to the preceding one—she uses enjambment to wrap the continuation of one sentence to the next. Kenyon has written a disturbing meditation on death. She has gone from the undefined “gray shape” to the owl with alarming speed. The last five lines of the poem are free of stops, as though words too were hastening towards a terrible finality. As Kenyon sits by her father who is dying, “Whose tumors briskly appropriated what was left of him,” she writes that birth is perhaps the real abyss, for why else would the dying choose to keep their hands free or the young howl at birth. She goes on to say that we must honor the dying person’s desire. “Reading Aloud To My Father” begins, “I chose the book haphazard,” and it ends with an assertion: “…. and you must honor that desire, / and let them pull it {their hand} free.” She quotes Nabokov in the first stanza, “The cradle rocks above an abyss,” and then comes back to it in the third stanza to assert, “Nabokov had it wrong…,” and here Kenyon expands the poem into a philosophical moment: “That’s why babies howl at birth,/and why the dying so often reach/for something only they can comprehend.” By the last stanza the speaker in the poem achieves realization: “At the end they don’t want their hands/to be under the covers, and if you should put/your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture/of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;/and you must honor that desire,/and let them pull it free.” For Kenyon, the poem frees her hand—she will not pull the departed back. Kenyon’s poems often lead to a quiet discovery. She attains this through what can best be described as “Acmeism,” a Russian aesthetic, which holds to the principle that poems reflect perfection of form, that they embody concision, and that they speak with clarity. Acmeism rose to popularity in 1912 during Anna Akhmatova’s time, and Kenyon, like her predecessor, relies on the image to carry the emotional weight of the poem. In “How Like the Sound,” the similarity between laughing and crying is noted. The poem begins with sound and progresses into the visual observation of a man in his mother’s tattered chair, “….head back, throat/open like a hound,” as he howls. This is a man preparing for loss. He has added “call realtor” to his list of daily chores. This loss is more than the loss of a house; it is the loss of a loved one. It is as though Kenyon were looking through the eyes of the man seated in his mother’s chair. His anguished red face vanishes behind the morning paper with a chilling finality. There is a hard edged resolve here—knowledge that life continues. The man in the poem returns from his howling to the daily ritual of reading his morning paper which is what saves him from being consumed by grief. In a sense the speaker in this poem has become mother to the man: “Of course the howling/had to stop.” One is reminded here of Elizabeth Bishop, particularly the stories of Nova Scotia and her poem “In the Waiting Room,”: “I said to myself: three days/and you’ll be seven years old./I was saying it to stop/the sensation of falling off/the round, turning world/into cold, blue-black space.” Words give Kenyon, as they do Bishop, as sense of stability. They prevent her from falling “into cold, blue-black space.” In Kenyon’s poem “The Way Things Are In Franklin,” she asserts in the first line, “Even the undertaker is going out of business.” Her eye roves the town with awareness of the transitory nature of life. The poem then becomes a record of her community. Stores are closed and one can no longer buy “gingham smocks/for keeping Church Fair pie off the ample/fronts of the strong, garrulous wives/of pipe fitters and road agents.” Everything is disappearing. In the first stanza there is no personal “I,” and it’s not until the second stanza that the speaker regains herself by noticing ordinary items which give her a foothold. “Yesterday,/a Sunday, I saw the proprietors breaking/up shop, the woman struggling with half/a dozen bicycle tires on each arm,/like bangle bracelets, the man balancing/boxes filled with Teflon pans.” “Yesterday,” takes a single line and is justified to the right of the page to enhance the sense of things breaking up. This poem notes the falling away of the familiar, similar to Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” “The windows have been soaped to frustrate curiosity,” Kenyon says, whereas in Bishop’s poem everything “is night and slush and cold” outside. There is no easy access to comfort here. Wherever Jane Kenyon is, I imagine her with Anna Akhmatova, and that from wherever they reside in death they “…..see the Paradise where together, /blissful and innocent, we once lived.” They are “On the Road,” in a land not quite their own. Akhmatova says: “Though this land is not my own/I will never forget it, /or the waters of its ocean, /fresh and delicately icy.” Perhaps they are discussing “Happiness,” or Jane is saying,”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.” One is faintly reminded of Whitman’s invitation to the reader: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow/from the grass I love, /If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.” Kenyon might then go on to relate to Akhmatova “Once There Was Light,” and “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.” Then they might quietly stroll into the thinning distance, these lines of Anna’s singing through them: “Late sun lays bare/the rosy limbs of the pine trees. /And the sun goes down in waves of ether/in such a way that I can’t tell/if the day is ending, or the world, /or if the secret of secrets is within me again.” Quotes from Anna Akhmatova from Twenty Poems/Anna Akhmatova, 1985. Translated by Jane Kenyon with Vera Sandomirsky Dunham. Eighties Press & Alley Press, and from Elizabeth Bishop/The Complete Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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