The Grandmother Poem
In junior high school, Jane Kenyon found poetry when she read Witter Bynner’s translations from the Chinese, The Jade Mountain. The aesthetic of the image remained with her forever. At first, poetry was only one of the arts she loved and practiced. Like her brother Reuel, she drew pictures, and she sang with a chorale. From the age of fifteen she worked to save money. She cleaned house one day a week, which she loathed. She baby-sat and worked in John Leidy’s gift shop in downtown Ann Arbor, the source of some of her family’s house’s prettiest things. Using her savings, at eighteen she toured Europe—Germany, England, Ireland—as one of the young singers in the Michigan Chorale. She worked at Leidy’s part-time through high school into college, full-time through the year and a half when she dropped out, and part-time when she returned to the university. She borrowed money for tuition, and worked to pay it back. When we were first married and living in Ann Arbor, she worked for the Early Modern English Dictionary, a project of linguists in the university’s English department. She stopped working only when we moved to New Hampshire.
Jane never enjoyed school, except for some literature classes, English and French. One high school English teacher filled her with love for Shakespeare and left her with hundreds of memorized lines. When she first entered the University of Michigan she quickly flunked a science class and left school. Often depressed, undiagnosed and unmedicated for many years, she felt that she lived at the peripheries of things. As an adolescent Jane had acne, wore thick myopic glasses that disguised her beautiful bone structure, and tended toward fat. Grown-up Jane like to weigh a hundred and twenty-eight (at five foot six) and felt gross when she went to a hundred and thirty-four. In high school she had weighed as much as a hundred and sixty-five pounds.
When she returned to the university, she majored in French. Spring term of 1969, Jane took my course “An Introduction to Poetry for Non-English Majors.” It was a class I loved to teach, in which I could evangelize— “Come to poetry!”—with enthusiasm, but that year was a bad one for me. My first wife and I had separated in 1967, and the divorce was final on Valentine’s Day, 1969—the same day I underwent general anesthesia to remove a spermatocele from my left testicle. A month later I had my gall bladder out and missed two weeks of classes. I think I taught well, despite the miseries, but I never made Jane’s acquaintance among the hundred and forty students. The following summer, Jane applied for admission to my fall class in writing poetry, then the only such class at the university. Annually, about fifty people submitted their work, and I picked ten or twelve students whose work I liked best. Jane’s manuscript included “The Needle,” as yet untitled, which is reprinted in Otherwise and resembles her later, best work. Among the poems that she submitted, it stood out. Once I had read it—in August of 1969, summer of astronauts on the moon, summer for me of bourbon and lonely misery—Jane Kenyon’s name went on the list of students accepted for English 429 that I posted on my office door. The rest of our lives—a twenty-three year marriage, Eagle Pond Farm, and many poems—derived from “The Needle,” which she wrote when she was nineteen, about visiting her sick grandmother. Every young poet writes a grandmother poem; Jane’s was not generic.
That poetry workshop was the best of a dozen I taught during my years at Michigan. The students, who ranged from sophomores to graduate students, were smart, funny, lively, talented, outrageous, and agreeable. We met one long evening every week in the big living room of the old farmhouse I rented, cramped between newer houses on South University Avenue. We drank a case or two of beer and argued about poems. For the first few meetings I held the floor—talking about student work and about poems from an anthology—to establish criteria and provide vocabulary. Before long the students took over direction of the class, in high hilarious seriousness, praising and blaming. They loved and assaulted each other, using ciritical terms like “shit”, caring for poetry not diplomacy. Jane’s voice was prominent. The teacher became peripheral, maybe an adjudicator, frequently shouted down. For the last class meeting, I brought in things of my own that I was working on, and the class tore my drafts to bits and pieces, turning my own standards back on me. After the class ended, it continued to meet in student rooms once a week for two and a half years without my presence. On rare occasions I was invited to a session.
There were no stars in that class but a cluster of bright, irreverent people who loved poetry. Jane is the one who developed, persisted, and produced the best work. Teachers become familiar with good students who take off in other directions. Two of these poets became lawyers, another hosts an NPR talk show, another edits a newspaper. (Several have continued to write poems and have published books.) Eventually, Jane wrote the poems of Otherwise, but no once could say that Otherwise was implicit in 1969 in the work of the twenty-two-year-old agreeable witty woman with short straight hair, a handsome figure, and a military vocabulary. So much in our lives depends on chance. Jane, seldom happy in groups, was happy in this group of student poets. She charmed and argued, swore and praised and denounced, laughed and teased with the rest of them. She made long friendships in that class, and in conference with me she was natural and easy. She never made me feel like an institution—but apparently I was terrifying enough—before classes began. After Jane’s death, I read a notebook from her undergraduate years that contains a sentence she wrote before English 429 started meeting. My house was near her co-op, and she wrote a note: “When I found out Donald Hall lives 3 houses away I felt like I did when I found that Dublin was a Viking stronghold or when I tried to catch the goldfish and found that the water was too cold to support life.”
When the term was over, Jane came to office hours with new work, and I saw her socially with other members of the class, or at poetry readings. I enjoyed her for her brains and humor, her kindness and support for others. She had a number of boyfriends or lovers but only Bill—I’ll call him—was serious. Jane was fond of him but he wanted to marry her and Jane was skeptical. She compromised, and in June of 1970 moved in with Bill. I saw little of her while they lived together. She was practice-teaching in the autumn, toward a certificate. “Mrs. Canyon” loathed practice-teaching, and her relationship with Bill deteriorated. She felt angry all the time, she told me later, and exercised her rage on Bill. Then Bill started seeing someone else. As 1970 drew to a close I heard from Jane’s friends that she was moving out of the menage, and had taken a room in another co-op. Although it was she who did the breaking-off, she felt miserable over what she perceived as her failure. I called her up and asked her to supper in January, 1971. Unhappy myself, I worried for Jane whom I knew to be vulnerable. When we ate supper that night she talked about nothing but Bill. (I countered with my own complaints.) We continued to see each other, about once a week, and for a while the subjects remained the same. Jane spoke of needing psychotherapy. Through friends in the field, I helped her find a smart Freudian whom she visited two or three times a week, cheap enough because he was still a student. Therapy did not cure her depression but helped her identify feelings (telling love from rage, for instance) so that she could attempt the deliberate life. Whenever we saw each other, she stayed overnight. We were not passionate or committed lovers but comforts to each other—and in 1971 if a couple had dinner together, they tended to have breakfast together. I continued to date other women, and made sure that Jane knew it. If she saw anyone else I did not know about it, nor would I have minded. After two or three months, one night a week became two nights a week, and we spoke less frequently of other people.
Meantime we were both writing poems, neither of us well. Jane wrote angry poems about Bill. Receding from inadmissible reality, I wrote poems of a light and goofy fantasy. College audiences laughed when I read them aloud but the poems were evasive and trivial. In these slapdash weeks and months I looked forward to my dates with Jane but began to feel nervous, noting that increasingly I attended to one woman, as old loves sloughed off, got married, or moved to Oregan. Neither Jane nor I said, “I love you.” Maybe both of us feared that “love” was a synonym for “pain”—and we were feeling only pleasure together, light pleasure. We laughed together; we spoke of poems; we fretted over friends.
In summer Jane sunbathed at a municipal pool and wore minidresses that showed off her tanned legs. Always when I parked at her co-op, to pick her up for a date, I watched her walk from the front door before I turned off the ignition. (We remained promptness freaks, something in common.) Then I signed a contract to write a biography—never completed; a long story—that required my presence in Los Angeles. In the summer of 1971 when I flew west for a month, it was Jane I took out the night before leaving. We exchanged letters; we talked on the telephone. I missed her; she missed me. When I flew home, Jane and I had supper the day I landed.
We saw each other not only alone but in company. My children liked her. I took her to middle-aged cocktail parties. We had picnics and played volleyball in Delhi Park outside Ann Arbor with the young scholars and writers of Michigan’s Society of Fellows and with poets from Jane’s old workshop. We began to see each other three nights a week, sometimes four. Therefore, I worried about what would become of us. It would hurt to stop seeing each other—yet obviously we couldn’t remain together because I was nineteen years older. Actuaries had Jane outliving me by twenty-five years. One night we were drinking a nightcap in my living room when my mother cat entered through the catport with a large flap of stomach skin torn open and hanging down, red meat showing. Horrified, we packed her into the car and drove to a veterinarian who stayed open at night. The wound, though ghastly-looking, was superficial. The vet knocked her out, applied antibiotics, dispensed some pills, sewed Catto up, and sent us home. We sat down again, to finish our watery drinks, with hearts still pounding. As adrenaline flowed and defenses disappeared, I found myself asking, “Do you think we ought to get married?” That night, we spoke of the issue reasonably. (We were unromantic lovers; ten years later we practiced candlelight and flowers.) We decided that we were too far apart in age; we would stay as we were. Jane was completing an MA in English. Maybe later she would do an MFA at Iowa, but for now...I felt relief as we climbed the stairs.
Jane wept through her psychotherapy and began to perceive a coherence and history to her troubles. I was her confidant; intimacy became habitual. From time to time, in our evenings and early mornings together, we alluded again to the possibility of marriage and put it aside again. Then on Christmas Day of 1971 we had a terrible fight, worse than any other fight before or after. We parted shaken, trembling, uncertain when or if we would see each other again. After twelve or fourteen hours apart, I felt bereft and desperate at the prospect of losing her. I telephoned and discovered that she felt as I did. When I picked her up, her face was wretched with fatigue. “Maybe we should get married,” I said. Jane nodded, and we embraced without speaking. Surely the dread of separation has accounted for more than one engagement, and doubtless there are better reasons for getting married—but all marriages start in ignorance and many from need; what matters is what you do after you marry. We set the date for April seventeenth, 1972, when my son Andrew would be home on school vacation. We told friends. My Ann Arbor contemporaries were surprised, and I don’t think they gave us much of a chance. Who could blame them?
We went ahead, although I was tormented by misgivings and I am sure that Jane was. It was a relief to concentrate on one woman—but did I love her? Was this what I wanted for the rest of my life? She was so young, twenty-four. (I was so old, forty-three.) Suppose she stopped writing poetry? Poetry was what brought us together, and Jane’s commitment to the art burned at her center, but would it endure? Would she remain a poet and prevail? One night I was regretting that as a poet she would be Jane Hall. The moment I said so we looked at each other with the same thought: in 1972, it was no longer obligatory for a woman to lose her name, so Jane Kenyon remained Jane Kenyon.
We were anxious, but before the wedding we were distracted by a crazy adventure: we flew to Florida and I tried out for the Pittsburgh Pirates—as it were—despite my age, my two hundred and fifty pounds, my unspeakable conditioning, and my stunning athletic incompetence. (There is an account of this caper in Fathers Playing Catch With Sons.) Two or three times players addressed Jane as “Mrs. Hall,” and she was unresponsive. When we returned I was bruised, half-crippled, and exalted. We continued to make wedding arrangements as the date inexorably approached. The day before the wedding we had lunch together at a downtown bar—pale, shaky, hardly speaking. We were married by a judge at City Hall in the company of my children, Jane’s parents, Jane’s brother, and her old roommate, Dawn. Our families had posed no problems. Jane’s parents did not speak against the marriage. My children, just-eighteen and almost-thirteen, had known Jane for more than a year, at picnics and volleyball games and suppers. After the brief ceremony, we settled in to champagne and lobster at the Gandy Dancer.
School was over soon, and Jane and I flew to New York for a short holiday or honeymoon, her first visit to the city. We stayed at the Plaza and hired a fiacre to rattle through Central Park. Shortly after New York we flew to Los Angeles where I put in some work on the biography. Everything was novel, and a little frightening. We quarreled rarely; we were careful or cautious with each other. I remembered fifteen years of a marriage that ended in failure; the failure of Jane’s six months with Bill still weighed on her. We investigated the miraculous notion that people could live together and be courteous, remain wary of the other’s feelings.
From Michigan, we drove East with my children to see my grandmother and my mother, first in New Hampshire where Kate was ninety-four, and then at my mother’s Connecticut house. Jane loved the family farm, the old cape sprawled backward into Ragged Mountain, white clapboard and green shutters. In the living room an unplayable piano heaped with family pictures. The beds were too swaybacked for comfortable couple-sleep, but the house carried for Jane profounder comforts with its warren of little rooms and doors, its low ceilings, its long side porch, its iron stoves and low set-tubs covered with oil cloth, its prospect of Mount Kearsarge, Eagle Pond, and the Blackwater River.
This place had been the Eden of my own childhood. My grandmother Kate kept sheep and chickens until she was in her nineties, but was now increasingly senile. The Glenwood kitchen range had been fitted with kerosene and Kate would turn the burners so high that they scorched the ceiling. Kate obsessed about certain subjects, like a minor dispute with a neighbor over boundaries. She returned to these worries endlessly, repeating the same questions. When I visited with my new wife, Kate addressed the mystery of her grandson’s divorce and second marriage. Before we arrived, my mother, Lucy, had answered Kate’s multiple questions by multiplying simplifications, hoping to solve Kate’s worry by providing a quick, false explanation. Kate had to hear it from me. I suffered her interrogations in the dining room—Lucy, Jane, and my children sat in the living room next door, so that my children were likely to hear her—as she asked me in a loud whisper, “Now the other one didn’t take care of you? But this one takes care of you?” I said hush hush and rapidly nodded my head. A few months later, further into dementia, Kate entered the Peabody Home in Franklin.
The autumn of 1972 I took leave without pay for a term, and Jane and I spent a month in England. I interviewed people for the biography. In the spring term I taught again, and we undertook further adventures. In June I rode twenty-six miles in a hot air balloon. Jane took photographs of the ascent, then followed the flight south into Ohio where we landed digging up a farmer’s field. In that second summer of our marriage, we stayed at the farm with my mother and visited my grandmother at the Peabody Home. The weather was perfect and Jane and I went exploring by foot and by car. Both of us preferred country to city. Ann Arbor was dinner parties and cocktail parties on weekends, “come on over after the game.” When Jane and I gave obligatory reciprocal parties, we panicked. When the doorbell rang and new guests arrived who had to be introduced, each of us ran away so that the other could misremember the names of friends. There were two routes from the front of the house to the kitchen in the rear. More than once Jane and I almost knocked each other down, running by opposite paths from the challenge of the doorbell to the back of the house. We had dear friends in Ann Arbor but if a gathering were larger than two couples, overpopulation impeded the pleasures of friendship. It was the life I had grown accustomed to over a dozen years. While my first marriage was ending, party weekends provided a refuge. Now, with Jane leading the way, I looked for another kind of existence—which would more closely resemble the ways of an only child who had wanted to write poems and who cherished summers on the farm.
The next summer, before another visit to New Hampshire, we drove around the flat Michigan countryside among horse farms, thinking of moving out of the city. Jane said, “It’s silly to look at farmhouses here, when there’s the house in New Hampshire.” When I heard her words, I was thrilled, although her suggestion made no sense on the face of it. How could I commute from New Hampshire to classes at Michigan? She spoke out of love and need, not out of a practical plan. Growing up, I had wanted to live where my grandparents lived but in my twenties I discarded the daydream. Now in one sentence Jane rehabilitated my old desire. If we took over the farm, we would buy, not inherit. Neither of my aunts, Caroline and Nan, had money saved up for old age. My mother had a moderate income from my father’s estate, but she was spending capital to keep her mother in the Peabody Home. The three sisters decided to mortgage the farm, in order to support Kate in her senescence, and then to sell it after her death. I set out to discover if I could afford to buy the place. I arranged to have the land surveyed, first time since 1865. When the surveyor reported that the farm included one hundred and fifty-two acres, I hired a real estate agent to look the place over and set a price. The house had no central heat, no isulation, and no storm windows; it did have a bathroom, cold and grungy, but still a bathroom; it had unreliable electricity and a noisy telephone. The agent priced the bundle (in 1974) at ninety thousand dollars. I consulted our Ann Arbor lawyer who advised me about finances. It seemed possible that the fantasy of childhood could become the reality of middle age.
Although my mother had power of attorney, and although Kate would never leave the Peabody Home, no one wanted to complete the transaction while she was alive. I would give my mother a mortgage of thirty thousand dollars, to pay for the Peabody Home, a sum which would later become the down payment. My lawyer told me I could afford to borrow the money but I had a better notion. When I was twenty-one, my grandfather and grandmother gave me a sixty-five acre farm across from their land on New Canada Road. It was not a gift of monetary significance but an act of piety; they knew how much I loved the land, and the old Elder Morrill place—where my grandfather for decades had pastured his young cattle—was growing up and could no longer sustain heifers. The Morrill farm had been abandoned during the Great War, and my grandfather had bought it with maple syrup money. The old house collapsed into its cellar hole as the pasture grew up to pine; my grandfather sold the softwood to help with his daughters’ college tuitions. In twenty years, he calculated, I could sell off the pine again.
A year after he gave me the land, he had another idea. Adjacent to my sixty-five acres was another abandoned farm, thirty-five acres owned by my skinflint cousin Jesse Johnson, who had sold off the timber. Every spring when he paid eight dollars in property taxes, Jesse whined about it. My grandfather said, “I think Jesse would sell it cheap.” “How cheap?” “Maybe fifty dollars.” Put together with the Morrill place it would give me a hundred acres. I had fifty dollars in the bank and liked the notion of extending and rounding off my acreage. “You mean just before taxes?” I said. “No,” said my grandfather. “Just after.”
Jesse sold me the farm for fifty dollars in 1951. Year by year my taxes rose, maybe reaching as high as twenty dollars. At some point in the 1960s, a letter arrived for me in Ann Arbor with an urgent appeal to buy my hundred acres. A rich man had bought the land adjacent to my property. I refused, not wishing to sell my grandparents’ gift. And I disliked the putative buyer. The rich McGuff (he was not McGuff but he was rich) had done something that displeased me. He was known in the neighborhood for his condescensions; he told funny stories about the natives, and enjoyed reporting that he had outsmarted them. My grandfather had died leaving Kate four hundred acres and no cash. At some point in her eighties my grandmother sold McGuff two hundred and fifty acres at ten dollars an acre. She thought she made a killing. Because he knew what he was doing, McGuff persuaded Kate’s three daughters and two sons-in-law to sign a paper giving approval of the sale. (Our local Republican congressman, a lawyer from New London, assisted in this endeavor.) My mother and Kate’s other heirs signed the paper because Kate was fierce, proud, and delighted with her financial acumen. Not to sign the paper would be to doubt her shrewdness.
When I needed thirty thousand dollars cash for the mortgage/downpayment, in the summer of 1974, I remembered McGuff’s inordinate lust for my land. I would be willing to sell my grandparents’ gift to buy my grandparents’ house. A real estate man told me that my hundred acres might go for as much as eight or ten thousand dollars. With malice aforethought, on the summer visit to New Hampshire, I dropped a note to McGuff saying that I was thinking of putting my acreage on the market. It seemed only courteous, I disingenuously allowed, to let him know. The note no sooner reached his house than his black Porsche zapped into our U-shaped drive. McGuff sat in the living room, for the first time since he had swindled my grandmother, and offered me five thousand for the land. I told him that I wanted more. After three seconds of thought, he offered me eight thousand. I told him I knew it was probably ridiculous but I was going to list it at thirty thousand dollars. He laughed and shook his head and laughed some more and wiped his eyes and offered twelve thousand. I repeated that I knew I was being silly but in fact that very day I was going to list the land for sale at thirty thousand. He sighed rapidly, three times, and agreed to pay me thirty thousand dollars. My grandmother was avenged.
Jane and I could look forward to owning the farm after my grandmother died. Freud says somewhere—it doesn’t sound like Freud—that an adult’s greatest bliss is the fulfillment of a dream from childhood. My mother and her sisters were delighted by the notion of succession: the same family continuous in the same house since 1865. No one was happier than Jane, and if her family regretted our potential exodus from Michigan, they concealed it well. Because I published a textbook that began to sell, Jane and I could think about taking a year’s leave without pay, the academic year of 1975-6. We decided to stay for a year in my grandmother’s house, visiting my grandmother at the Peabody Home. I applied for leave and received it. In Ann Arbor the fall began an onset of poetry for me, the best things I had done for a long time. “Kicking the Leaves” anticipated a permanent move to New Hampshire which my conciousness did not acknowledge. All year as I unknowingly taught my last terms at Michigan, Jane and I looked forward to the New Hampshire year coming up. That summer of 1975 we drove to the farm dragging a U-haul behind us, bringing comfortable chairs, a TV, bushels of manuscript, and winter clothes. My grandmother, who had not spoken for many months, began to have difficulty breathing: congestive heart failure. The great vessel of affection and endurance lay dying at last, old body shutting down. My mother, my aunts, and I took turns at Kate’s bedside. We stood beside her for her last breath, my mother rubbing her head and I holding her hand. Walton Chadwick, who had buried my grandfather twenty years before, took Kate’s body to New London. Daughters and grandson picked out a casket, pine covered with gray fabric, and the neighborhood attended calling hours for a last look at Kate Keneston Wells, who had played the organ at the South Danbury Christian Church for seventy-eight years, from the age of fourteen until she was ninety-two. We buried her beside my grandfather, next to her parents and siblings in the Proctor Graveyard. The Reverend Jones, whom my grandmother had admired when he preached at the church, improvised a prayer in which he said that Kate in heaven would keep on “growing...and growing...and growing...”
My mother left for her Connecticut house, September flared, and Jane and I began our lives.