That the poet Donald Hall went into depression after the death of his wife, Jane Kenyon, another poet, isn't at all surprising. I remember hearing him read from his work soon after Without: Poems was published, a collection of poems that devotes itself to her death. An interview, on stage, with Hall, allowed him--even prompted him--into a level of anguish, which grew, in my opinion, almost maudlin, to the point at which one simply hoped it would stop.
I can't help but hear that Donald Hall in this morning's Writer's Almanac offering. Maybe I've read or heard too many I-am-grieving poems from him, but I knew the direction into which this one was heading once we came to the bed-and-breakfast.
We flew the Atlantic all night, your head
with its first streak of gray leaning
against my shoulder, and took a cab
to our bed-and-breakfast. We napped,
woke up at noon, and rode the tube
from Russell Square to Piccadilly Circus,
where we asked a stranger to take
a photograph of us standing together,
then walked for lunch to the Salisbury,
where in bomb-site London I drank
pints of Younger's before you were born.
Thus it starts. Almost bucolic. And such is the pattern of his grief, his mourning. Remembrance is all very romantic, of course, up until "bomb-site" London, which reminds us, not only that something horrible once happened but that something horrible is likely coming as well. The line zeroes in on the characters, too--they're not John and Jane Doe, they're not Everyman and Everywoman. He's significantly--twenty years--older than she is, which gives the whole poem the heft of autobiography. Maybe it's just me.
Back at the hotel, we made love
as late light slipped through a gap
in the curtains onto your cheekbones,
your nose, your outstanding chin,
and your eyes--dazed like a baby's
sleepy surfeited eyes--that closed
as you said in my ear, "I will lose you."
It's all one sentence, the love-making and the dying, and I suppose, in a way, that's what it's all about. Because I knew the Hall/Kenyon story, I wasn't surprised by the last line, surprised like I should have been. When I read it, I saw him once again on stage carrying what should have been private grief into a sanctuary full of people. Maybe there's something wrong with me, but it's that too-private airing that affects my reading of the last, very powerful line.
In fact, it's the last line which makes the poem not simply his story, but all of ours because there always is, in the human story, that persistent last hurrah. I just read this line in a wonderful interview with Christian Wiman in Christianity Today: "Jurgen Moltmann once wrote that all theology, especially a theology of hope, had to be conducted 'in the earshot of the dying Christ.'" Joy is what it is because death--and suffering--is what it is too. The two are inseparable in theology and in life.
The cover review on this week NY Times Book Review belongs to a first novel by Ayana Mathis, a novel titled The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, which opens up the life of a black woman who came north with the Great Migration. The reviewer admires the book, but clearly doesn't love it because, by her estimation, there's simply too much grief and sadness.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is exactly the kind of novel I like, even love--historical fiction that burrows into the lives of real human beings in a different--mostly American--time and place. But I'm not reading this one because I've come to the age where I don't want to indulge sadness. I'm not interested in happy faces either, but long, depressing literary work, no matter how glorious in style, simply doesn't hold much appeal right now; I'm 64, and I've seen enough of that myself, and I'm going to see more, I'm sure.
Today is Twelfth Night, the eve of the Epiphany. Today, even in our house, the Christmas tree gets tossed on the brush pile out back, and if it isn't windy, gets burned with everything else. It's a calendar date that we really can't avoid, even if we don't know the tradition or the liturgy. Life occurs always within the earshot of the dying Christ.
And we can't avoid Twelfth Night because it is, for better or for worse, a significant chapter in our own stories, as important and wonderful and promising as the day that tree went up in early December. Just as surely, it must come down, and it will today.
Sounds awful, I know--but think of it this way: Easter is 'a'comin.
Think of it this way: there's always Easter.