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.