By Jane Kenyon
Graywolf. 357 pp. $26
Jane Kenyon's collection Otherwise: New & Selected Poems was published in 1996, less than a year after the poet's death at 47 from leukemia. The poems were selected by the poet during the last days of her life. Her husband, Donald Hall, an institution in American letters himself, wrote poignantly of this process in the afterword of Otherwise and at greater length in his memoir The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon.
With 60,000 copies in print, Otherwise has become a phenomenon in American poetry publishing, and Kenyon belongs on a short list of contemporary poets whose work sustains readers who do not usually turn to poetry. It is no wonder her work has inspired genuine affection among so many; Kenyon's poems cultivate a warm, familiar voice that invites the reader into the pains and pleasures of everyday life with an honest and engaging intimacy.
Now, at the 10-year anniversary of her death, Kenyon's Collected Poems brings all of her published poetry together in one volume. Given the abiding strength and impact of Otherwise, it would be easy to argue against the need for this new book. Not counting Kenyon's translations from Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova, only 35 poems have been added to those in Otherwise, and, with just a few exceptions -- "Climb" from the 1993 collection, Constance, and the unfinished poem "Woman, Why Are You Weeping?" are standouts -- the additional poems do not much change our understanding of Kenyon's accomplishments or the direction she might have gone had she lived longer.
Still, as Otherwise stands as a memorial to the writer's life, Collected Poems is a celebration of the journey the poet took in the development of that life. The new collection follows Kenyon from her first book, From Room to Room, published in 1978, through the last poem she started after her illness had advanced, "The Sick Wife." By reconstructing Kenyon's books in their published versions, Collected Poems provides a complete picture of the poet becoming more confident in her craft and expanding the ambitions of her work.
Kenyon's struggles with depression throughout her life are well-known, and her work is as important to any understanding of contemporary poetry on this subject as William Styron's Darkness Visible is to prose literature. In "Depression in Winter," she describes a walk through snow as "throwing myself forward with a violence/ of effort, greedy for unhappiness," and in "Evening Sun," a memory of childhood becomes the impetus to re-experience the realization "that I would have to live, and go on/ living: what a sorrow it was; and still/ what sorrow burns/ but does not destroy my heart." The perseverance against the despair Kenyon writes about is an unending battle, and the forthrightness with which she took this up in her poems will continue to resonate with readers. "Having It Out with Melancholy," her most ambitious poem on the subject, calls out this "anti-urge,/ the mutilator of souls," and through the litany of pharmaceuticals, the respite of sleep and the dog -- "Sometimes the sound of his breathing/ saves my life" -- she finds the fleeting peace to celebrate birdsong, "overcome/ by ordinary contentment."
The mind is not her only subject. Bodily concerns appear in all of Kenyon's books. In the early poem "Cages," the corporeal world takes its shape first in a "dead beagle" and then through "animals in cages," which leads to the question, "And the body, what about the body?" There is no easy answer -- "Sometimes it is my favorite child," "And sometimes my body disgusts me." The speaker can only reach this conclusion:
Then I have to agree that the body
is a cloud before the soul's eye.
This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.
In "Winter Lambs," a friend's unplanned pregnancy leads to this declaration: "We are creation's/ property, its particles, its clay/ as we fall into this life,/ agree or disagree." The physical and metaphysical are inescapable elements that Kenyon returned to often in her work.
Then there are the heart-rending poems of loss and letting go. With these powerful opening lines, "In the Nursing Home" belongs among the finest lyrics of the last half-century:
She is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.
Again and again, Kenyon confronts the unbearable nature of loss and puts forward her belief that "Searching for God is the first thing and the last,/ but in between such trouble, and such pain."
Kenyon's introduction to and translations (with Vera Sandomirsky Dunham) of Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova may seem an odd way to close Collected Poems, but it is hard to imagine the incantatory beauty of "Let Evening Come" or the stoic lyricism of "August Rain, After Haying" without this influence. And there is something fitting about Collected Poems closing with the words Kenyon chose to end her poem "Lines for Akhmatova": "I can't tell/ if the day is ending, or the world,/ or if the secret of secrets is within me again."
Otherwise will deservedly continue to bring new readers to Kenyon's work, but if you already find Kenyon a vital and essential poet, buy this Collected Poems and give your copy of Otherwise to someone you care about to help keep Kenyon's spirit alive. *
Jon Tribble is the editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry from Southern Illinois University Press.