Briefly I feel sorry for myself, and briefly grieve

 

poem is taped to bench
poem is taped to bench

 

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. . . .

 

IMG_1980

 

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–

 

that hook in the foreground looks like it's ready to whisk her away
that hook in the foreground looks like it’s ready to whisk her away

 

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.

 

ImageKenyon 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!

 

 

 

20 Comments

  1. Jane

    Amazing! I, just this morning, dropped my own youngest child off at U of M to start his life there as a freshman, and I, too, am a great lover of Jane Kenyon’s poems. Often I have quoted to myself the poem you end your post with, especially when I am feeling sluggish or unmotivated or slightly self-pitying: “How much better it is to carry wood to the fire than to moan about your life.” How enormously true this is. And what a treat Poem Elf is. I smile every time a new post appears. Thank you for your truly lovely blog. It’s a breath of fresh air for me.

  2. Sherry Crowson

    Congratulations for having safely raised a child to adulthood. It’s easy to say it’s time to let go, but letting go is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise is the book of poetry that spends the most time on my desk because she is such a poet of the ordinary, the daily work, the commonplace things that make up out lives. You picked a terrific poem to leave there. Your work on this blog, and leaving poems to comfort people, gives us all a chance to make connections and to see those connections made as well. Thanks for the opportunity!

  3. Mary Lee

    I also love the poems of Jane Kenyon. My first and only book of hers is Otherwise. I found it at a library book sale and was so happy! Funny, on Tuesday I started an upper level poetry workshop at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO. I’m 65 and am auditing it. The professor asked us each to name our favorite poet. I said mine were, “Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall”. And then you come out today with this lovely post and I was in “Kenyon Heaven.” Thank you.

  4. Anna

    I couldn’t help but think about how much sadness my own mother must have had in her heart 4 years ago when dropped me off on campus, helped me unpack my belongings and send me away with love to start a new chapter in my life. ((((hugs)))) However, if it is any consolation love, I believe your daughter has her own equal amount of sadness that she may or may not express to you. I spent my first night alone crying in my bed, and after calling my mom to tell her how great I am doing, I got off the phone and balled my eyes out. I ended up just sitting there until the late night feeling so alone and wanting to just hop on the bus and head back home. Blessings to you and thank you for this amazing post, all of your posts are always so great!

    1. poemelf

      Such a sweet story, thanks! I’m sure my daughter also has moments of homesickness, but it’s no consolation–I want her to be happy!Thanks for reading and for your kind comments.

  5. barbarafromburbank

    Oddly, I did not feel sure sadness when my four children left for college. I was always happy for their journey into the larger world. It is since then (the next 30 years) that I feel sad: wounds I can’t kiss and make better and intimations of my leaving them–forever.

  6. Kelly

    So sweet and sad. “End of my mothering” – Never! It was hard to let my firstborn go since he was my JOB for 19 years! Two years left with my secondborn and I now know what I am in for….bittersweet. Love your line about your husband chasing you around the house – I’ll be sure to knock if I stop by! 🙂

  7. pam

    This is my favorite of your posts yet. I love your transparency.

    The day my folks pulled away from the curb to leave me at college, as an after thought my Dad called out from the driver”s seat, “Enjoy not knowing where anything is.” When i looked confused he said, “this time next week you’ll have a favorite cafe, and know where all your classes are…”

    It is the advice I return to every time I feel lost. enjoy the unknowing.

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