Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer
by Jane Kenyon
We turned into the drive,
and gravel flew up from the tires
like sparks from a fire. So much
to be done—the unpacking, the mail
and papers … the grass needed mowing ….
We climbed stiffly out of the car.
The shut-off engine ticked as it cooled.
And then we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful.
by Donald Hall
In June’s high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.
I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.
“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.
“You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.
I cheated a little in pairing “Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer” and “Summer Kitchen.” The poets, Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall, were related. Married, in fact.
When I took up the twin project, I pulled Kenyon’s poem out of my file where it’s languished for years, and wondered if her husband had written a similar poem. Indeed he had. These two poems are like his-and-hers souvenir t-shirts, same colors, different fit.
Both are love poems that never use the word, both paint a portrait of a couple deeply connected to nature and each other, living simply and tenderly. The poets observe, they record, they feel deeply grateful.
The poems take place at different times of the summer at the same time of day. This reminds me of how Kenyon and Hall worked on different floors of the same house. His poem, nestled in stanza and rhyme, is more formal. Hers is looser, the rhythm natural and calm as only a Kenyon poem can be.
Hall was older than Kenyon by nineteen years. Given his age and metastatic colon cancer, he expected to leave her a widow. But it was Kenyon who died first. Diagnosed with leukemia at 46, she died a year and a half later. He lived to be 89, still in the same house, and wrote “Summer Kitchen” a few years after her death. Knowing that, I’m reading the poem in a whole different way. The past tense he employs becomes pointed and poignant. And that last line— It was a miracle—can’t you just see the widower in the empty kitchen, salving his grief with gratitude? How loving is his gaze, how precise. How bittersweet in memory.
Donald Hall (1928-2018) and Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) met at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was her professor in a poetry workshop. They were married for 23 years, 20 of them spent at a farmhouse on Eagle Pond in New Hampshire, his family’s home since 1865. It was Jane who drove the move from Michigan to New England—she wanted to get out of academia and had fallen in love with Eagle Pond. They lived in what Hall termed “double solitude,” spending the workday apart, not interrupting each other.
They both served as deacons in the South Danbury Christian Church, and both suffered from serious depression. (There is no connection between those clauses!) She called him “Perkins” after they took a trip to a town called Perkins Cove in Maine where every store and building seemed to be named “Perkins.” I find that utterly adorable.
Hall wrote a beautiful essay in Poetry Magazine describing their life at Eagle Pond. Here are a few excerpts:
When we moved to the farm, away from teaching and Jane’s family, we threw ourselves into the life of writing poetry as if we jumped from a bridge and swam to survive.
He goes on:
What we did: we got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems. We had lunch. We lay down together. We rose and worked at secondary things. I read aloud to Jane; we played scoreless ping-pong; we read the mail; we worked again. We ate supper, talked, read books sitting across from each other in the living room, and went to sleep. If we were lucky the phone didn’t ring all day.