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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