Death and poetry

View of Meola Reef, Auckland, New Zealand

I wrote on Monday about existential sadness and how that’s not the same thing as being hopeless or needing cheering up. The sadness has to do with mortality, with the fleetingness of existence and the impossibility of ever holding onto anything we love. I’ve noticed that in the past couple of years I’ve thought a lot more about this than I ever did before — and I wouldn’t say I didn’t think about it before. I don’t know that this makes me sadder than I used to be, or more thoughtful, or anything except that I just carry this knowledge with me a lot more. Maybe it started after I turned 30, maybe it started after Tisha died, maybe it’s because of our travels, maybe it’s because Gong-Gong died. Who knows. It’s just there now, almost always, underneath the happiness and the delights and the peaceful moments and the not-so-peaceful ones: the knowledge that whatever this moment is, it will never come again, and indeed, perhaps soon no moments will ever come for me again (after all, how can we know?). It’s strange, but it doesn’t take away the happiness; it just changes its nature a little, like a drop of red in a glass of water: it’s almost invisible, but you’ll never be able to get it out again.

I’ve mentioned that this apartment (which is not my apartment, if you’re new to the blog) is full of books, mostly poetry. There is even a little bookshelf in the bathroom; I like to read the titles on the spines as I’m brushing my teeth. One of the books is Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, and on Saturday night I decided to actually take it down and open it (again while brushing my teeth. I don’t think Poetry for Toothbrushing is a good title, nor fair to the poets, but I sure as heck would read that book). I knew Kenyon’s poem, “Otherwise,” from some recent encounter I can’t remember now — the only thing I remember is the poem — and it struck me as the perfect capture of that existential loop, the “everything matters but soon we will die.”

Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise”

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

I flipped through the book and enjoyed some of Kenyon’s other poems — in the same bittersweet way — most notably “Having it Out with Melancholy.” Then I read her author bio, and then looked her up on Wikipedia.

This is what I learned from the book: Jane Kenyon died at 47, of leukemia. About a year into her illness she had a bone marrow transplant, and for a little more than a month it seemed to be working, and then they learned from bloodwork that the disease hadn’t gone away at all. She died eleven days later.

This is what I learned from Wikipedia: her husband, the poet Donald Hall, was 19 years her senior. When they’d been married for about 17 years, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and it metastasized to his liver; he had two surgeries and chemo and was eventually given a one in three chance of surviving the next five years. Instead, he lived and is still living now. But it’s during those five years that they found out she had leukemia.

Six years or so from his diagnosis to her death, six years during which there must never have been a moment when they didn’t think one of them was going to die and the other was going to have to watch it happen. They did have many happy years together, their work was recognized, and that should count for something, but still. In the way of mythology I find myself imagining a choice offered by an immortal being: would you exchange a long lifetime of togetherness for those six years of illness and an early legacy of beautiful poetry?

Would you? Would I?

And does it matter, since the choice was not given?