rev. of From Room to Room by Jane Kenyonby
Jane Kenyon is apparently transplated to New England from Michigan; New England suits her well. Its depressive terrain and weather fit her gusty, solitary moods. Its Puritan heritage, still lived by in those towns, sparks her to spare meditations on the nature of the body, and on living this life. Her first book,
From Room to Room, is the most ambitious of this group, conceived of as a body of work and not a collection of disparate poems; it is also the most fully realized.
Her subject is the situation, or the web of circumstances, in which she finds herself. Briefly, the story is this: A woman comes with the man she loves to live in his ancestral home. Although she loves him, she says, "I hated coming here." She has her doubts about how she will fare:
You always belonged here.
You were theirs, certain as a rock.
I'm the one who worries
if I fit in with the furniture
and the landscape.
But the house itself is handsome:
And when I come over the hill,
I see the house, with its generous
and firm proportions, smoke
rising gaily from the chimney.
Gradually, despite herself, she begins to settle into it, and into the life of the new community:
I feel my life start up again,
like a cutting when it grows
the first pale and tentative
root hair in a glass of water.
"Life is so daily," Ben Belitt said. "Getting through the cotton wool day," Virginia Woolf said. "Sitting in the middle of perfect/possibility," Jane Kenyon said, transforming homespun into fine cloth.
Jane Kenyon's voice is her own, but there is an echo in it of Elizabeth Bishop's. The language is spare, straightforward, apparently flat. The sentences are declarative, without complicated syntax, and apparently ordinary. The tone is reserved (the man is always addressed "you," and we don't know much about him); the mood has a tendency to depression. The whole spectrum is compressed.
But what comes out is pure poetry, and of a sophisticated kind. Kenyon's powers of mind and passion are extraordinary. The passion is nearly always muted, the mind, never. The interplay between them is constant, subtle, kept in balance, so that one feeds the other instead of interfering with it. To use a sexist phrase, Kenyon is what used to be called "a sensible girl" -- not one to let her imagination run away with her by any means. One has the impression that she is not "a born poet," but a self-made one. She works until the exact words of description ("root
hair" in the stanza previously quoted) or feeling ("I was a fist closed around a rock") are found. And then she gives you just that and no more, with an unerring sense of form.
This is a poet, flinty as all New Englanders, who has the courage of her convictions. It is a matter of astonishment to me that the following line could appear in a recent book by an American poet, but here it is: "And again I am struck with love for the Republic." She has just recalled voting for the first time -- voting! But there it is, simple, direct, without self-righteousness.
Not only that, but Kenyon also takes up one of the oldest Christian themes, that of struggle with the flesh.
And the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized. . .
And sometimes my body disgusts me.
Filling and emptying it disgusts me. . . .
This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.
Earlier in the same poem, she has mentioned the Pietá, with the following plea:
some particle of comfort, some
consolation for being in this life.
We hear nothing direct in these poems about the state of Kenyon's soul, and I have no idea whether Kenyon herself is a professing Christian or a Druid. But her use of this theme makes me want to hear more from her on it. It suggests that she could develop into something like the Emily Dickinson (cf. "Ruby Heaven") of our generation.
Kenyon's book ends with translations of six poems by Akhmatova, excellently chosen and, as far as I can tell (
sans Russian), excellently done. Which is to say, they are lovely in English.