John H. Timmerman's incisive look at poet Jane Kenyon could use a snappier title because, more than a "literary life," it is a quintessential modern American spiritual journey.
Kenyon, born in 1947, was raised in a tenant farmhouse of artists in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her father was a cool jazz musician, her mother a nightclub singer. However, Kenyon wrote, "What happened to me in my childhood was my grandmother. The central psychic fact of that time was grandmother's spiritual obsession, and her effort to secure me into her religious fold." The shape of her soul was molded in the mid-century spiritual cruciblejazz or jezebels, Arthur Murray dance records on the RCA or numbing apocalyptic visions of a fiery hell.
Jane Kenyon's life ended 48 years later, after a 15-month battle with leukemia, in an old New Hampshire farmhouse with her husband, Donald Hall, also a poet, at her side. Timmerman examines, with love and clarity, a life well-lived in between.
Initially Kenyon's poetry flourished quietly under the shadow of her more famous husband. In 1975 they moved from Ann Arbor to Eagle Pond Farm near Wilmot, New Hampshire. Here Kenyon's life began to take on a shape that fit her. They planned to live there only a year, but soon Kenyon said she'd "chain herself in the root cellar rather than leave." She sent down a spiritual taproot and drew from that soil beauty, suffering, and compassion. She also gained the strength to craft them into art and life, moving her confidently beyond Hall's renown.
THE ZEALOUS FIRE of her grandmother had branded Kenyon with a spiritual passion and driven her as far from organized religion as she could get. Small-town life in New Hampshire, however, prompted certain communal obligations. The Sunday after they moved to Eagle Pond Farm, Hall surprised Kenyon by saying, "I suppose we ought to go to church." It was at South Danbury Christian Church that she met Rev. Jack Jensen, who became a true pastor and Christian interrogator for Kenyon. "I listened to Jack's sermons week after week," she said, "discovering to my astonishment that my soul had been starving."
The faith that Jensen nurtured in Kenyon was deep and authentic. She began reading the lives of the saints, doing her own scripture study, and writing essays on the Holy Spirit. Her poetry started to reflect a communion with God that it only hinted at in prior works. Then on a visit to India she had a crisis of faith. The sight of a dead newborn along the shore of the Ganges broke her. Her poem "Woman, Why Are You Weeping?" catches the pain in the line "Men and women with faces as calm as lakes at dusk/have taken away my Lord, and I don't know/where to find him." Later she writes, "I only know that I have lost the Lord/in whose image I was made"a loss of belief, but also a loss of self.
Timmerman's access to Kenyon's notes, unpublished essays, and journals opens up the inner life of this courageous woman. We see what shaped her as a person and a poet. Timmerman uncovers the crucible of Kenyon's suffering, passion, and loss, then leads us into the flowering fields of her resurrectiona place where death has no dominion. In her poem "Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993," Kenyon pushes at the edges of grace when she describes Mary as a brown pod curled in the mind of God and in her "Christ, cloaked in blood,/lodges and begins to grow."
Rose Marie Berger is poetry editor of Sojourners.