“Into black air”: Darkness and its Possibilities in the Poetry of Jane Kenyon
…If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.
The American poet Jane Kenyon worked almost exclusively with the forms of the lyric poem in order to negotiate the abyss of uncertainty and loss which, in her perception, characterize broader human experience—in emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical terms. As she writes in the poem “With the Dog at Sunrise,” despite the powerful compensations of the natural world, life nevertheless presents itself to her as a path of suffering:
Searching for God is the first thing and the last,
but in between such trouble, and such pain.
The poetic lyric in free verse form, as Kenyon used it, is imagistically and structurally compressed, often with a final volta or twist, and pivots on the crucial intersection between the subjective voice and the field of external perceptions. As a distillation of poetic structure in general, the lyric’s structural and emotional focus on the centrality of the image and its metaphoric possibilities makes it able to operate at a nexus between a subjective interior and an exteriorized articulation; it is this which provides Kenyon with the perceptual and communicative scaffolding with which to understand and accommodate an experience of life as inevitably fractured with loss, grief and even clinical depression. In a poem to her dying father, she describes life, rather than death, as the period of exile which is to be endured:
…This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.
(“Reading Aloud to My Father,” CP, 291)
Kenyon’s poetic does not shy away from any delineations of such an abyss and is at times confronting in its depictions of the bleakness of those holes in the fabric of a life through which one can fall—into the suffocating grip of what she refers to as “the anti-urge,/the mutilator of souls” (“Having It Out With Melancholy,” CP, 231). Indeed, the poetic act, so hard won, will not always be successful in its efforts to provide consolation for despair, or frameworks of meaning to apparent meaninglessness. As Kenyon notes in the small poem “Depression,” language will not always be adequate to bridge the chasm between desire and its object, between despair and the far shores of faith. This poem itself is fractured with dusty ellipses, suggestive here not of a wealth of extra-linguistic possibilities but rather of the possibilities of failure and melancholic powerlessness; its descriptions beat hollow, desperate to summon up the power of a narrative of redemption, yet confronting the always-imminent failure to invoke that longed for presence:
…a mote. A little world. Dusty. Dusty.
The universe is dust. Who can bear it?
Christ comes. The women feed him, bathe his feet
with tears, bring spices, find the empty tomb,
burst out to tell the men, are not believed …
Nevertheless, in spite of, and perhaps even because of this dusty drag into melancholic despair with its failure to cohere fragments into any kind of story of redemption, Kenyon’s is also a poetic which resolutely strives to affirm the possibility of a positively connoted “urge,” to unearth and affirm the drive which brings, “like friends the green-white crowns/of perennials. They have the tender,/unnerving beauty of a baby’s head” (“Ice Out,” CP, 195). Her poetics document success and failure, dark as well as light—the drive of the desire for life, and for the sustenance of both body and spirit, as well as the death-bearing inertia which eschews even the power to speak. Evoking, describing, sometimes listing what Gwen Harwood has referred to as the “small voices” of the image, precise and drawn from the world which surrounds us, Kenyon provides us with a scaffolding of poetic imagery which comforts, if not rescues us from the silence of loss—loss of loved ones; loss of one’s agency; loss of faith in the very possibilities of continuity and redemption.
In these ways, I argue that Kenyon enacts a poetic labour of mourning, forging a poetics of tentative presence which nevertheless acknowledges the loss or lack which variously underpins human experience. Like all poets of mourning, she is actively concerned to trace, lovingly and in an often incantatory way, what is present and graspable as well as what is not, what can only be suggested through the agency of the metaphor. In Kenyon’s poetry, this pulsing of possibility and loss, image and its shadow, is most recurringly evoked through images of darkness and light, particularly as they operate within the senses of the physical world. Such images and thematics abound throughout her poetry: From Room to Room (1978), The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), Let Evening Come (1990), Constance (1993), and the Collected Poems (2005), published a decade after her early death from leukaemia in 1995. Tracing a direct line both from the Romantics’ interest in the figurative possibilities of the natural world, and also from an Imagist, or modernist, preoccupation with the pared down “natural image as the [always] adequate symbol,” Kenyon’s poetic figures a play of light and dark, of hope, despair and the shadows of possibility—primarily by means of the precisely visualized and experienced imagery of the natural world, in particular the world of her life with poet Donald Hall at Eagle Pond Farm in rural New Hampshire. As the critic Robert Spirko notes, Kenyon’s poetry offers a crucial “confluence of experience and emotion, the place where the objective and the subjective come together.” The poetic perception of the external world—its objects, seasons, people, relationships—not only notices and describes that world, performing the vital task of drawing a reader’s attention to the things outside the small house of themselves, but, in a manner reminiscent of Whitman’s great inventories of detail and perception, focuses attention upon that point of confluence, where the self confronts the wild and open fields of alterity, where the individual voice of experience overlaps, albeit only momentarily, with the cosmos in which it recognizes itself. It is in the linguistic imaginary of such a confluence that the single voice is able to articulate interior perception through the language and the imagery of the visible world. Reflecting on her own role as poet, Kenyon theorized, “We feel this pressure of emotion and thought, and we need to find, among the many things of this world, a way to body forth our feeling. It’s metaphor, the engine of poetry, that does the work for us.” Echoing here Williams’ sense of the poem as a “machine made of words,” as well as his insistence upon the poetic praxis which asserts that there can be “no ideas except in things,” Kenyon highlights the emotional as well as the technical work required by the poem as a confluence of inside and outside: to “body forth” that interior world into landscapes of the recognizable; as well as representing that exteriority—the specificity of lichen, or hay bales, or peony flowers—inevitably through the lens of the subjective.
The seemingly simple early poem “For the Night” (CP, 5), raises this interplay of a complex imagery of light and dark which informs her entire poetic:
The mare kicks
in her darkening stall, knocks
over a bucket.
The cow keeps a peaceful brain
behind her broad face.
Last light moves
through cracks in the wall,
over bales of hay.
And the bat lets
go of the rafters, falls
into black air.
On a literal level, the poem describes the attenuated movement of the day and its creatures into the night. Kenyon repeatedly returns to this shifting time of twilight as a literal and metaphoric site of transition and potential transformation. This has the effect of both highlighting the temporal nature of the world and its things, enacting the idea that while there may be cycles there are also inevitably limits and final closures—“but one day, I know,/it will be otherwise” as she writes of life and love and health in “Otherwise,” CP, 266)—while also drawing attention to the symbolic significance of the two distinct spheres at their transformative point of intersection.
As this, and many other poems, makes clear, Kenyon does not present a dichotomised and unequivocal view of light/day as positive and dark/night as negative. Rather, the poems reflect the complex of associations and possibilities associated with each position. On one level, the falling night here could be understood as a lack or a failure of light, thereby casting the speaker into the exilic experience of darkness; in this sense, the poem might operate elegiacally, as a nostalgic grieving for a day which brings clarity, wakefulness, even usefulness. The kicking of the mare for example is, on one level, an incident of ordinariness, part of the fabric of the business of putting farm animals away at the end of a working day. However, it might also suggest something of Dylan Thomas’ notion of “raging”—here, perhaps as everywhere, ineffectually—at the loss of light and the life which is associated with it.
However, the poem is in fact dedicated “For the Night,” and thus it also operates something like a gift to or token of appreciation for what it is the night might represent. Like any gift, it symbolizes an economy of giving, an exchange that is profoundly bi-directional. The night does not simply take away the blessings of the light—the productivity of the farm, the harvesting of the grasses as provision for the future—but offers something different, something as well as. The speaking voice takes its point of perception inside the contained space, inside the walls of the barn, watching, delineating, as “Last light moves/through cracks in the wall,/over bales of hay”; yet this movement of the light—natural, inevitable according to the logic of the physical world—is not simply evidence of the entropic passage of time and mortality. The point of perception is situated within the edifice of structure, even within the house of poetic language, but this is a house which is also open to the external world, significantly not sealed against the possibilities of change and loss. And as loss of one sort slowly takes place, as the “Last light moves,” the space of the barn/the space of the poem becomes a sphere of change—a change that always has the potential for both fearfulness and the inspiration of what is unexpected, the not-self which can only come upon us in the hiatus of loss and uncertainty.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, and referring to another poem “The Bat” (CP, 114), in which the movement of the bat’s wings is likened to the “third person/in the Trinity…/the one who astounded Mary/by suddenly coming near,” Kenyon commented:
What I had in mind was being broken in upon, the way Mary was broken in upon by Gabriel. You think you’re alone and suddenly there’s this thing coming near you, so near that you can feel the wind from the brushing of its wings.
Similarly, in “For the Night,” the final stanza brings not only an additional piece of physical description, but a sense of an otherness “breaking in upon” the space of the speaker. And where the previous elements of the poem focus upon the visible, the watching of the light and its effects, these last lines move us into another sphere—of sound, the sensed pressure of wing beats in air—taking us to a different, unpredictable place. The bat certainly carries some associations of gothic terror, emblematizing the possibility of a vampiric plunge which leaves the speaker, unprotected by light, vulnerable to time’s assault upon the corporeal body. However, as Kenyon’s references to the wings of the angel Gabriel suggest, there is also a strong evocation of a positive, even transformative and inspirational aspect of this encounter with night’s messenger. Indeed, there is even a suggestion of identification of speaker with bat—an inhabiting of the metaphor of exteriority as a vehicle for a movement beyond the sphere of the known, the safe, the recognizable. The bat “lets go” of the stability and shelter of the rafters, and its transition into the space of the barn/poem is figured as a “fall[ing],” a loss of control and agency that can either signify impending disaster or the emotional “free-fall” which Adrienne Rich describes as an essential component for any movement out of stasis, a necessary step to ensure the possibility of new life—poetically, emotionally, psychically. Such a risky, yet potentially productive free-falling also evokes Williams’ articulation of modernism’s charge that any concept of the new is only possible through the dangerous collapsing of the old—“a flaw, a crack in the bowl” of preconception: “It is this that one means when he says destruction and creation are simultaneous.” The poem suggests that to find the next (always new) experience or understanding, it is imperative to “let go” of the supporting and shielding rafters to fall into that black air, just as, in order to convey the imperative and the risk of that plunge, it is necessary to find a new poetic house in which to accommodate and articulate that experience.
“What a lark! What a plunge!” feels Mrs. Dalloway at the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s novel. As that modernist literary experiment suggests, the “plunge” can be one both of inspiration, of courage and newness derived from that “breaking in upon” of alterity, as it also inevitably correlated, within the structures of that narrative, with the suicidal plunge of Septimus Smith over his balcony. The fall “into black air,” where the night can be read both as a sea of inscriptive ink and of drowning, will thus always be one which encompasses an equivocation and an ambiguity of possibilities. It is the plunge of poetic inspiration, the energy that moves and drives any kind of creative spirit—as it is also a plunge both into the exigencies of an unknown and into the downward spiral of despair, the depression of “melancholy” as Kenyon describes it, which desires only silence and inertia, desiring death as the only possible extinguishment of its own desiring.
Depressive experiences certainly constitute an important form of “darkness” within Kenyon’s poetry, as indeed within her experience, enveloping the speaking voice in melancholic webs of inertia, dissociation and exhaustion, such as in “Rain in January,” “When my arm slipped/from the arm of the chair/I let it hang beside me, pale,/useless and strange” (CP, 73); or in her most developed work on the topic, “Having It Out with Melancholy”:
A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
In Kenyon’s poetry, depression is, at least on one level, an earthward drag, an antithetical impulse to the jubilant celebrations of nature which she also recognizes as possible. When artificially buoyed with medications, the speaker in “Having it Out With Melancholy” can see only the brightness of the day, the life-affirming possibilities of acceptance, of integration with the natural world:
High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
notes of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
The light here is wonderful—yet it is also excessive, prising open all of the speaker’s already heightened senses, in a manner reminiscent of Plath’s “Tulips,” where the eye’s “stupid pupil” is forced to take in the lively and disturbingly violent colour of the flowers. She is “greedy” for the sound of the bird, alert to the smallest nuance of interior and exterior worlds, emotional and vulnerable in her desire to connect, to love the “small, swiftly/beating heart of the bird.” Although linked to her physical experience, as she stands at the screen door at 4am, the dazzling brightness of the summer morning also contrasts with the mystical vision of light she reports earlier in the same poem, when
… I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colours – those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
This light is transcendent, perhaps even somewhat manic, and appears to join the speaker in some kind of spiritual, extra-physical way, with an ultimate communitas. It is also a paradox, in that the momentary calm which this river of light brings with it is also in some ways annihilating, something which can be experienced only outside the constraining pathways of ordinary life, outside the house of the physical body. Significantly, the speaker accuses “you”—presumably a personified “melancholy” to whom the poem is addressed—of pulling her out of that “glowing stream,” “Like a crow who smells hot blood.” It seems an act of mercy—“‘I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear/ones drown!’”—if the river of light is in fact obliterating, an inexorable tide of desire which leads toward drowning and death. It is also experienced as an act of predation, where melancholy snatches the speaker from her “easeful death” in order to subject her to yet more slow tortures of despair, to “turn me into someone who can’t/take the trouble to speak; someone/who can’t sleep, or who does nothing/but sleep; can’t read, or call/for an appointment for help.”
In his interview with Kenyon, Moyers poses the idea that “perhaps depression is itself a gift, a kind of garden in which ideas grow and in which experiences take root.” Kenyon agrees insofar as “depression makes me still”—and that stillness is a precondition for the acute paying attention which is necessary for the production of the language and the shape of the poem. This idea that the dark and disturbing shadows of depression can function, in some circumstances, as a fertile ground for creativity, is explored in a number of poems, amongst them “The Beaver Pool in December” (CP, 70), and “Depression in Winter” (CP, 74). In “The Beaver Pool in December,” the poem’s speaker sits “in the cold/until dusk,” waiting to observe the activity of the beavers as they move into winter. Like many of Kenyon’s poems, this poem meticulously evokes a particular landscape, at a particular season, at a particular time of the day, creating an impression of almost documentary reportage:
The brook is still open
where the water falls,
but over the deeper pools
clear ice forms; over the dark
shapes of stones, a rotting log,
and amber leaves that clattered down
after the first heavy frost.
However, as with so many of Kenyon’s poems, it moves also us toward that point of productive confluence, where the interior world of the speaking voice intersects with the specificities of the external world, where the poet’s desires are tracked onto and through the precision of the recalled or imagined image of the beavers—industrious, prepared, changing their environment, yet now lost to sight:
Though I wait in the cold
until dusk, and though a sudden
bubble of air rises under the ice,
I see not a single animal.
The beavers thrive somewhere
else, eating the bark of hoarded
saplings. How they struggled
to pull the long branches
over the stiffening bank …
but now they pass without
effort, all through the chilly
water; moving like thoughts
in an unconflicted mind.
Set again in that liminal zone of dusk, the poet uses the image of the beavers in their freezing pool to create a seemingly idealized picture of a human mind, where what works and labours beneath the surface of consciousness might all be toward a good and rational purpose. Nevertheless, as we follow the position of the speaker—from observer, to imaginer, and back within the implied obscurity of the waters of her own mind—the notion of “conflicted” may not necessarily be construed only as a negative, just as the rational endeavours of a wintering beaver may not constitute the epitome of human aspiration. Indeed the thoughts of a “conflicted mind,” although perhaps more difficult to manage on one level, are actually the basis of the poet’s creative impulse, the material out of which, as humans, we fashion the complex and imaginative responses to our selves, to our relation to others, as well as to our natural environments. Mental or emotional conflict may be a burden to manage—an almost insupportable burden for some people at some times—but it is also that which feeds the urge to understand and to communicate our understanding to those around us.
In “Depression in Winter,” the poem first draws attention to a small space on the south side of a stone on a wintery mountain, the kind of small and specific detail that can be easily missed, not understood:
There comes a little space between the south
side of a boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
a crescent of bare ground; brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green …
Once again, the poem paints a literal image with precision, although the possibilities of the tendrils of metaphoric connection are also immediately signalled with the phrase “There comes …”. In the life of the speaker/poet, in the journey of this “I” up the snowy slope, there indeed come points of potential revelation—where the external world is suddenly apparent to the self and where, in that precise clearing of perception, the self can find a space, however small, in which to productively transpose and reflect itself.
I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness –
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.
Paradoxically, the drive that pushes this climber up the mountain with an excessive “violence of effort,” seems to derive from a perverse “greed for unhappiness”—a desire for suffering and negativity which may be a destructive end in itself, and/or a way of moving into those very spaces of interior “conflict” which may ultimately yield some form of new insight, a breaking through that would not be found in the easy, apparently smooth path of the frozen surface. Indeed, as “Depression in Winter” unfolds, it is the distilled point where the negative, somewhat reckless flinging forward is arrested—the “accident” of perception—which offers this small window of revelation, the “little space” where snow and cold have not encroached, the “secret porch of heat and light,/where something small could luxuriate.” It is not a space or a perception which transforms the entire scene, which remains winter. However, it does offer enough, “a crescent of bare ground” amid desolation, to return the speaker to a more settled path, to bring her back from the bitter heights of extremity to the implied world of the ordinary and blessed world of light and shadow—a blessedness which, paradoxically, would not have been perceivable without the violence, the unhappiness of the climb.
The poem “Peonies at Dusk” (CP, 254), finds us again at the uncertain time of twilight, here in Kenyon’s garden, where the magnificence of the flowers in the gloaming raises questions about the nature and the source of the light itself:
White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.
Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.
The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.
In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.
Reminiscent of Pound’s haiku-like Imagist fragment, “In a Station of the Metro,” the flower is metaphorically equated with the dimensions, beauty and complexity of the human face. Significantly, the blossom is aligned with both the face of the speaker who observes and, from a position of equivalence, “props them up,” and also the face of the other, the “loved one” who is caressed and known by the gaze of the poet. The huge white heads of the peonies thus become emblematic of the productive interface between inner and outer, between the self who sees and speaks and the other who is addressed, loved, and who also requires listening to and interpreting. As growing plants, beloved by Kenyon, the peonies also echo the image of the poem as a making, something that may have its own drive and life independent of the poet—yet which is absolutely dependent upon the imagination and artifice of the poet/gardener to bring it into being, to cultivate it to the point of both aesthetic and communicative clarity. The loved other may be equated with the natural magnificence of the flower, but so too is the poem itself. Luminous and fragrant in the falling of night air, the source of its own light, and yet, like the bright, white face of the moon which “moves around the barn/to find out what [the scent] is coming from,” the poem, like the peony, is also reflective, communicative, of a light from elsewhere. In this sense the poem, like the peonies, could be seen as its own ordinary miracle; it is the beauty of the natural object which is observed, yet it is also the product of that act of observation and intention, orchestrated and propped “with stakes and twine,” just as Kenyon carves her personal perceptions into what her husband Donald Hall refers to as the “art of the luminous particular.”
Once again, light and dark stand in equivocal symbolic relation to one another. While on the one hand, the almost glowing peonies can be seen as an antidote to the dark, a consoling point of illumination and referentiality in what would otherwise constitute a “dim[ness],” even a fearfulness, it is also the case that the wondrousness of their luminosity, their ability to “send out light” with a presence which amazes even the moon, is in fact accentuated by the falling of the night. The night—be it redolent of darkness, loss, melancholy, death—is thus both a contrast which allows us to read the whiteness of the image or indeed the page, as it is also the condition which facilitates the emotional and linguistic insights of the poem—Moyers’ notion of depression as “itself a gift, a kind of garden in which ideas grow and in which experiences take root.” As Becky Edgerton notes in her discussion of this poem, Kenyon “confronts agony and faces up to what existence is, but she does so by giving close attention to the concrete.”
Reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, Kenyon writes in “Things” (CP, 139) of the recognition of the fundamental interchangeability of light and dark, of experience and absence in the cascade of the seasons:
Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.
Only in this interplay of shadow and gleam do we find our place in the world; and only through a paying attention to the particularity of the things of the world—here through the intense looking of the poetic image—do we find comfort and pattern enough to see and accept our inevitable falling, to be “glad at last to have fallen.”