Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday Sentence: “The Sick Wife” by Jane Kenyon

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.*

               Dry cleaning swung and gleamed on hangers
               in the cars of the prosperous.

“The Sick Wife” by Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise: New & Selected Poems

*I’m going to break my rules this week with a note of explanation. For the past six weeks, I’ve made my way through Otherwise in deliberately slow fashion so I could savor Jane Kenyon’s poetry. Today, I turned the last page--an act of both joy and melancholy, as happens whenever I finish a great book and am loath to leave it. “The Sick Wife” is the last poem Jane wrote before her death. I’ll turn this over to her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who writes in an Afterword positioned just before this final poem:
     Jane died of leukemia on 22 April 1995. The disease was diagnosed in January of 1994, in a virulent form; chemotherapy could induce remission but could not sustain it, and only a bone marrow transplant (BMT) offered hope for extended life. In October of 1994, we flew to Seattle where the Fred C. Hutchinson Cancer Center takes on hard cases. A new marrow from an anonymous donor was infused on November 18th, Jane was discharged to a Seattle apartment December 20th, and we returned to New Hampshire with good hope on 24 February 1995.
     For six weeks her blood counts improved. She was weak and impaired, as expected after a BMT; it would take a year for her to recover. She could read little, and she could not write because an anti-rejection drug disabled her fingers. Nevertheless, she began work on this book, proposed by Graywolf in November as she underwent the transplant. Jane wanted to omit early poems that she had later outdone, and slighter things from all her books. Following her directions, I photocopied selections from her books and assembled new uncollected poems; she had published six, and there were fourteen more in her study--more finished poems than she had remembered. She intended to complete the book as her strength came back. But on 11 April 1995, bloodwork revealed that leukemia had returned. There was nothing to do and she died eleven days later, at home in our bed as she wished.
     In the first five days of her dying, we finished this book. I read her titles of poems selected and omitted. I read passages aloud when I argued for the inclusion of a poem she doubted....
     Of the twenty finished new poems, only “Eating the Cookies” came after her illness, on the occasion of my mother’s death in March of 1994. In late May and early June....[Jane] enjoyed a good patch. Her mental and physical energy allowed her sessions at her desk. After readmission to the hospital, 21 June 1994, she finished no more poems.
     She started one in March of 1995, back in New Hampshire before the leukemia returned, but she did not survive to finish it. On March 8th, with Jane slowly improving, I left her for eight hours. Our friend Mary Jane Ogmundson stayed with her, and Jane dictated a draft of “The Sick Wife.” Typed, it lay on a reading table beside her chair. On several occasions she dictated a revision, and a new draft replaced the old. She would have made more changes if she had lived. I put it here as her last word.


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