Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
by Jane Kenyon
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….
When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .
I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .
I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .
I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .
I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .
I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .
Last Christmas, when one of my daughters made me a mobile with eggs and birds falling out of an overturned nest, I looked ahead to my own approaching empty nest with poetic appreciation. Out from the nest came the eggs, and from the eggs came colorful origami birds, each on its own flight path. New life out of the old. The next year would bring new life for my youngest, who would be leaving for college, and new life for my husband and me. Suddenly unencumbered, presumably we would chase each other around the empty house like teenagers.
All part of the never-ending cycle of life.
Now that day is here, and it seems less a poetic cycle than a prosaic ending. The end of my mothering.
I know, I know. I should be delighted that my daughter is where she’s supposed to be. With her new bedding and roommate and independence, she’s as happy as I could have hoped. And, yes, I’ll sleep better on weekends, cook less on weekdays, keep a cleaner house, keep all my socks to myself, and have more time to pursue what efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth (and Cheaper by the Dozen dad) described as the reasons we need to save time: “For work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.” After 25 years of organizing my days around kids, I’m free to organize my days around mumblety-peg.
Bah. Right now I’d take four little kids pulling me in four different directions over freedom and mumblety-peg. A drawer full of matched socks can be depressing. Uninterrupted sleep can be dull. An orderly house can be a sad house. An orderly house means a house without Anne Marie’s worn Birkenstocks and enormous backpack, a house without her dancing and deep sleeping, her jars of Nutella, her unmade bed, her unexpected wisdom, her little kindnesses, the nearness and dearness of her–
Before I start tearing up again, I’m going to turn quickly to the poem and keep this post brief.
I left Jane Kenyon’s “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” on a bench across the street from my daughter’s new dorm on move-in day.
I left it as a kind of protection, a talisman, a reminder of the love that will always be hers. I realize the “I” in the poem is a divine being capable of an unconditional love parents can only aspire towards, but still, this—
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name
–seems on the mark for parents whose children suddenly forget to use their cell phones.
There’s another reason I chose this poem. Telling other people what to do is one of the aspects of mothering that’s hard for me to give up, and so after I reminded my daughter to take her thyroid medication and go to every class and eat vegetables and wear her glasses and go to Mass, I left the poem behind as my final instruction. To her and to all incoming freshman and returning upperclassmen, I say: Look out for each other, dear children. Be the patient gardener, the working hinge, the basket of fruit. Because college can be a lonely place sometimes. And for some kids, it’s lonely every day, every hour, every second. Suffering so often hides in plain sight.
Poet Jane Kenyon was no stranger to suffering herself. Maybe the real reason I selected this poem is that her clear-eyed exploration of pain and plain-spoken pleasure in the world as it is put my little sadness in perspective.
Kenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Her mother was once a singer and later a seamstress; her father was a piano player. She attended the University of Michigan, where she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall, nineteen years her senior and later U.S. Poet Laureate. Upon earning her masters at Michigan, she married Hall and moved with him to his family farm in New Hampshire. She suffered from depression all her adult life. When she was 46 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died a year later at 47. Four months before she died, she was named poet laureate of New Hampshire.
She only published four books of poetry in her lifetime, and the best of those poems were gathered in a posthumous collection called Otherwise. It’s one of my favorite books I own from any genre.
Jane Kenyon is the poet I’ve loved longest and best. The first book of poetry I bought was Otherwise. The first book of translated poetry I bought was her rendering of the poems of the great Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. And the second poem I featured on this blog was a Kenyon poem.
I’m going to close with that poem I posted four years ago, “The Clothes Pin.” It’s becoming clear to me that the only person I can tell what to do anymore is myself, so listen up, Poem Elf, you sniffling sap, you mawkish mush-head:
How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line
with a gray-brown wooden clothespin!