The publication of Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise is an occasion for sadness and for celebration. To have under one cover a representative gathering of the poetry that Kenyon wrote during two decades, poems marked by a maturity of craft evident from the onset and enlivened by a power of invention as strong at the close as at the beginning of her writing life, engenders a feeling of gratitude mingled with sorrow. The sense of loss that is inescapable when regarding the early death of an artist in her prime is compounded by the afterword contributed by Kenyon’s husband the esteemed writer Donald Hall whose characteristically direct account of her last days stands as an intensely moving, loving tribute because of its avoidance of any easy appeals to the emotional turmoil Hall clearly experienced. And yet, as Hall seeks to stress, Otherwise is a living record of a woman’s engagement with the world, poetry written during their marriage, “almost twenty years together at Eagle Pond Farms, engaged separately in a common enterprise.” It is Hall’s intention to give the reader a context for the voice he knew, the voice that Kenyon developed to express and explore seemingly contrary but in her case connected states of being. What has been called “the shadow of depression” had a significant place in Kenyon’s world, but the candor with which she recorded her uncertainty in its presence and her ability to counter its influence through the act of casting in precise, gripping, but unobtrusive speech her enthusiastic feeling for “the luminous particular” has resulted in a book of poetry in which a life has been vividly realized. The sympathy one must feel for Kenyon and Hall ought not to diminish the possibility of joy that the reader can share with the poet in the moment of energetic contemplation that formed the poem and which the poem recreates.
The somewhat unusual fusion of instances of enraptured lyricism set amid an almost pervasive mood of existential gravity is one of the primary components of Kenyon’s voice. Her willingness to confront the reader with this sometimes unsettling combination by placing the twenty new poems in which this mode is especially prominent at the start underscores the success of a struggle toward self-confidence and the eventual acceptance of her inner nature. The chronological progression of the poetry gathered from four previous volumes is not limited by the circumstances of her marriage to Hall in 1972 and their decision to live in Hall’s family home in New Hampshire in 1975, but her earliest published work stems from approximately this time in her life. The poems in From Room to Room (1978) are already recognizable for the facets of style that distinguish Kenyon’s work—a directness of utterance, a clarity of vision, an economy of rhetorical devices, a striking use of a telling image—but here there is a feeling of tentativeness, of testing new ground, of discovering how a rather fragile sense of self is going to survive in a new setting. The assertive declaration of “Notes from the Other Side” from the last pages of the 1993 volume Constance, where Kenyon announces, “I divested myself of despair/ and fear when I came here,” stands in sharp contrast to the modest appreciation Kenyon registers in response of land and home in From Room to Room. The confidence born of handling the psychological pressures of the previous two decades in large part through the employment of an artistic consciousness which enables her to transform difficult situations into an aesthetic construct, is not entirely absent in the work which she includes from her first book. Far more prevalent, though, is her unease with what Hayden Carruth has described as “the moral and psychological and cultural values of her new environment.” Through the use of small details, nuances of feeling and haiku-like observation, Kenyon acclimatizes herself. Her voice here is generally composed, but there are clearly tensions pushing at its edges, a suggestion of some very strong emotional currents kept under a watchful kind of control. The understatement of the power of eros in “The Shirt” is a typical representation of a force that is both dangerous and delicious, a suggestion of the potentialities of the sensual which Kenyon employs judiciously.
The importance of building some kind of philosophical foundation for managing the looming uncertainties of her life is introduced in this collection, notable in “Afternoon in the House” where the commonplace features of a secure, familiar location where “The...
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