I admire the smart whisper of comedy in Jane Kenyon's poems -- not ha-ha witticisms or jokes but rather Kenyon's subtly comic insight into depression, her affliction and frequently her subject.
Kenyon died of leukemia in 1995, a few years before she would have turned 50. Although she wrote candidly about severe, merciless depression, her poems demonstrate a joyous alertness to people and animals, to weather and landscape. She is alert even to spiritual dullness and laughs at it in herself.
Dullness has always been a great target of comedy, from the unwitting cuckolds of antiquity through Shakespeare's credulous bumpkins, sententious courtiers and pompous local officials and their descendant, the Boring Accountant portrayed by Michael Palin of "Monty Python's Flying Circus." In the 17th century John Dryden wrote this memorable couplet about one of his targets at the moment of birth:
The Midwife laid her hand on his Thick Skull,
With this Prophetick blessing -- Be thou Dull.
And if depression is not dull, what is? It is dull even in oneself. Kenyon explores this insight with the heartbreaking energy of self-mockery. She deflates any sentimentality about depression and declines self-dramatization and self-importance while challenging her nemesis. She acknowledges depression's power but defies it: "Unholy ghost," she addresses it in "Having it Out with Melancholy," "you are certain to come again." She names the medications, dryly. Slogging through snow in "Depression in Winter," she sees herself unheroically, caught in the cycle where misery loves not only company but itself, literally graceless:
I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness. . . .
In Kenyon's recently published Collected Poems, the implicit presence or threat of depression transforms a range of occasions. The intricate, humiliating joke of it underlies bits of domestic comedy in "Potato":
In haste one evening while making dinner
I threw away a potato that was spoiled
on one end. The rest would have been
redeemable. In the yellow garbage pail
it became the consort of coffee grounds,
banana skins, carrot peelings.
I pitched it onto the compost
where steaming scraps and leaves
return, like bodies over time, to earth.
When I flipped the fetid layers with a hay
fork to air the pile, the potato turned up
unfailingly, as if to revile me --
looking plumper, firmer, resurrected
instead of disassembling. It seemed to grow
until I might have made shepherd's pie
for a whole hamlet, people who pass the day
dropping trees, pumping gas, pinning
hand-me-down clothes on the line.
The word "redeemable," placed by a forceful enjambment at the beginning of the second stanza, is echoed by the "hand-me-down clothes" of the last line. Redemption: to get back what is discarded or spoiled, to salvage something, to do one's work after all. That goal, seemingly available and commonplace, turns out to be as unattainable as the trick wallet pulled back by a fishing line or the coin soldered to the street. Kenyon gives wry, triumphant verve to her unheroic examples of the potato and pumping gas. Her memorable poems trace the channels of extraordinary spiritual trials and the measured redemptions of an extraordinary imagination. (Jane Kenyon's poems "Depression in Winter" and "Potato" can be found in her "Collected Poems." Graywolf. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.)