Close Encounters

Jane Kenyon's essays and letters reveal her more private moments.

A Hundred White Daffodils, by Jane Kenyon. Graywolf Press, $16.

THIS POSTHUMOUS COLLECTION of essays, interviews, newspaper columns, poetry translations, letters and one poem by Jane Kenyon is an intimate olio of the poet's spiritual and philosophical quest, revealing the inner life of a woman who, more often than not, sought privacy and meditation over literary hype and poebiz glitz. In 1995, at the age of 47, Kenyon died of cancer, and contemporary American poetry lost part of its soul.

As a craftsperson, Kenyon was an expert technician. Her collection of poems, Otherwise, was razor-brilliant. Like H.D. or Emily Dickinson, Kenyon's best poems pared experience to the bones of imagery, embodying her luminous passion, scrupulous attention to detail, thoughtfulness, pathos, and what Galway Kinnell termed "a tenderness toward existence."

At first, I was concerned that the collection was chaotic, a hodgepodge, and that wading through such a disparate array of genres, like sampling too many kinds of wine in one evening, would result in a huge intellectual headache. I'm glad I was wrong.

Reading A Hundred White Daffodils, I was overcome by the full range of Kenyon's urgent and rich imagination. Her prose is clear, full-bodied, shaped on the lathe of intelligence and wit.

"A Gardener of the True Vine" is an elegy for Kenyon's dear friend, Jack Jenson, a minister who urged her to study women mystics like Saint Teresa and Simone Weil. "It's one thing to have faith as a child; one professes belief at least partly out of obedience," Kenyon avers. "Choosing to have a spiritual life as an adult is altogether different."

Several essays are devoted to her own spiritual struggle. Of the first church service she attended as an adult she writes, "The sermon was elegantly shaped and intellectually convincing. What is more, it made reference to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. ... I listened to Jack's sermons week after week, discovering to my astonishment that my soul had been starving."

Environmental awareness, love of community, courage in the face of great personal tragedy, a deep respect for the natural world inform her work. What speaks most eloquently is her utter humanity. In "The Physics of Long Sticks," her language is disarmingly straightforward as she ponders her dog: "Gus feels unfulfilled without a stick--like a superfluous person ... . Why can't people be more like dogs--more direct, more openly affectionate, less prone to rancor, and inclined, despite the risk of ridicule, to take up longer sticks?"

This is a book to curl up with when hail slicks your chaise longue or knocks the blooms off your porch gardenia during unusually protracted and slightly unsettling fall rains.

Don't miss her interview with Bill Moyers, where Kenyon candidly discusses her lifelong battle against clinical depression--hellish, almost catatonic periods, during which she forced herself to walk, to garden, to become a community and a hospice volunteer in order to survive. With a mind sharp as a slice of green lemon in winter, Kenyon performs surgery on herself without the least bit of sentimentality.

Living for over 20 years with Donald Hall on his ancestral farm, Kenyon lived nature. Her eye is keen as a marsh hawk's. Topping the list of my favorite prose pieces are Kenyon's incredible hiking and gardening essays. In "The Moment of Peonies," witness this lush description of her favorite flower:

"These are not Protestant-work-ethic flowers. They loll about in gorgeousness; they live for art; they believe in excess. They are not quite decent, to tell the truth."

The final poem, "Woman, Why Are You Weeping," is Kenyon's lamentation. It launches from Mary Magdalene's plaintive "They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where to find him," and catapults to Kenyon's heartbreaking observations as she travels through India, where she is assaulted by "tuberoses, urine, dust, joss and death," infant corpses and starving women. Kenyon cries out from the dark subcontinent of her soul. The final lines are as searingly beautiful as they are desolate with abandonment.

"What shall we do about this?" I asked
my God, who even then was leaving me. The reply
was scorching wind, lapping of water, pull
of the black oarsmen on the oars ..."

Just three years before her death, when asked if she would recommend being a full-time writer, Kenyon answered, "The simple art of becoming a full-time writer will not significantly change your work. There are full-time writers who can't push things to their limits--poets who stop when a thing is good enough. The amount of time has nothing to do with being bold or fearless, telling the whole truth."

Truth is the indelible ink of A Hundred White Daffodils.