Typically, I’m not a fan of the “Best of…” series, but last week at the library I picked up a copy of The Best of the Best American Poetry edited by Robert Pinsky and released in 2013. Surprisingly, I enjoyed many poems by many familiar faces in this collection, and what I liked best was how the back of the book included not just a brief bio on the poet, but a brief commentary on the selected poem as well.
Most moving was the Jane Kenyon poem “Reading Aloud to My Father.” Kenyon describes the final days sitting beside her dying father, but in this case, poignancy is added to the poem not by Kenyon’s commentary in the back (for she herself would succumb to leukemia 14 years after her father’s death), but by commentary added by her husband, the poet Donald Hall. First, though, the poem:
Reading Aloud to My Father by Jane Kenyon
I chose the book haphazard
from the shelf, but with Nabokov’s first
sentence I knew it wasn’t the thing
to read to a dying man:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, it began,
and common sense tells us that our existence
is but a brief crack of light
between two eternities of darkness.
The words disturbed both of us immediately,
and I stopped. With music it was the same–-
Chopin’s piano concerto–-he asked me
top turn it off. He ceased eating, and drank
little, while the tumors briskly appropriated
what was left of him.
But to return to the cradle rocking. I think
Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.
At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.
The words quoted in the first stanza are from Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. In 1996, one year after Kenyon’s death, Hall wrote this commentary, which was used for this book; it gives the poem special significance and power, I think:
“Jane wrote many poems about her father’s illness and death, of which ‘Reading Aloud to My Father’ is the latest and last. Reuel Kenyon died of cancer in Michigan in 1981; Jane and I stayed with him for much of his illness, helping Jane’s mother care for him. When Jane was dying, I thought of this poem. Music was her passion, as it was her father’s; at the end, she could not bear to hear it, because it tied her to what she had to leave. In her last twenty-four hours, her hands remained outside the bedclothes, lightly clenched. I touched them from time to time, but I did not try to hold tight.”
Thus did a husband use his wife’s words from 14 years earlier to guide his behavior at her own death. And thus were Jane Kenyon’s last hours an echo of her father’s. I lingered on the part about the hands. I reread the poem. I lifted my eyes from the book and stared in the distance, for a while seeing nothing.