Kenyon’s Highs and Lows

When I was an undergraduate and devoted to poetry, I used to wish I could see the world with the kind of “romantic” extremes my favorite poets did. I knew that wasn’t to be, though, when I was introduced to Aristotle’s Golden Mean in a freshman philosophy class. I knew immediately that that was the guiding principle in my life, a realization confirmed in later life with my fondness for Taoism’s Yin and Yang and Buddha’s Middle Way. That doesn’t mean that, at times, I don’t still admire poets who can see the world in all of its extremes in ways I can barely imagine.

Though Kenyon’s poetry tends to see the world through the darker side of her bipolar vision more often than the light side, she is still capable of allowing the reader to literally see the bright side of life.

Philosophy in Warm Weather

Now all the doors and Windows

are open, and we move so easily

through the rooms. Cats roll

on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp

climbs the pane, pausing

to rub a leg over her head.

All around physical life reconvenes.

The molecules of our bodies must love

to exist: they whirl in circles

and seem to begrudge us nothing.

Heat, Horatio, heat makes them

put this antic disposition on!

This year’s brown spider

sways over the door as I come

and go. A single poppy shouts

from the far field, and the crow,

beyond alarm, goes right on

pulling up the corn.

There is a natural ease about this poem that seems impossible to deny. We’ve all felt free and easy on a warm summer day. My favorite image in the poem, probably because I would never in a million years have thought of using it, is “The molecules of our bodies must love/ to exist: they whirl in circles/ and seem to begrudge us nothing.” Such joy is not just in our mind; it pervades us a the molecular level. We can’t help but be happy.

Rain in January is much more typical of Kenyon’s poetry as a whole, and is a poem I can identify with living here in the Pacific Northwest where we are in the midst of two weeks of unusually heavy rain, likely to extend into mid-June.

Rain in January

I woke before dawn, still
in a body. Water ran
down every window, and rushed
from the eaves.

Beneath the empty feeder
a skunk was prowling for suet
or seed. The lamps flickered off
and then came on again.

Smoke from the chimney
could not rise. It came down
into the yard, and brooded there
in the unlikelihood of reaching

heaven. When my arm slipped
from the arm of the chair
I let it hang beside me, pale,
useless and strange.

I’ve been known to let extended rainy periods get me down and force me to make cynical pronouncements, but luckily I have only felt as bad as the narrator when I’m befallen by thyroid cancer, throat cancer, prostate cancer, or serious bouts of pneumonia. Which is to say that, despite my generally optimistic view of the world, I can, unfortunately, still identify with the poet’s condition. As I suppose most of us can.

I suspect it was not just the smoke that “brooded there/in the unlikelihood of reaching/heaven.” It’s bad enough to feel alienated from heaven, but it’s much worse to be alienated from your body, from a “useless and strange” arm.

2 thoughts on “Kenyon’s Highs and Lows”

  1. I have really appreciated reading Jane Kenyon’s words these past few days. It’s been good to be reminded of such fine poetry. When I think about her suffering, I think about my sister’s long-time partner, an Air Force veteran. He suffered terribly from bi-polar disorder and could find no way to peace except to end his own life. I wonder if he had been able to express himself somehow, he might still be here. Just being able to fully articulate the pain may have mitigated the disaster. Not that his suffering would have been any less, but that he would have had an outlet besides alcohol, a gun, a noose, and pills. I’m sorry if I’m being too graphic, but bi-polar disorder is so damned challenging.

  2. Two marvelous poems nicely juxtaposed, Loren. The kind where if you’re asked, “So what exactly is bipolar disease again?”, you’d serve the person well by just handing them these poems. In narrative/memoir form, Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind” is also a powerful work, if you haven’t come across it before. She’s an eminent psychiatrist and researcher in the field who incorporates her own experience with bi-polarism into her work. She has survived and thrived, but just barely sometimes…

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