Saturday, October 4, 2008

Under My Skin

We have been battling mice in our house. The ubiquitous traps are tucked under cabinets, behind dressers, or in closets. I can smell peanut butter and mice pee in every room I enter, and I have already lost a couple purses to the mouse that decided to bed down in them. Though we have caught a couple--one died instantly, while the other had to be drowned--I find myself wondering if this is a losing battle. We are, after all, living in the country, surrounded by fields, and nature is tenacious in its efforts to get inside.

Which makes me think, of course, of poetry. I once wrote that a good poem was much like an infestation. Be it living things (ants, spiders, mice, etc.), weather (cold, heat, wind, rain), sensations (a loud sound, a piercing light, the way dust makes your nose tickle), something is always trying to get in, to make us feel uncomfortable or vulnerable in our little private havens. Similarly, a good poem won't just make you think, "Oh, how nice," as you snuggle deeper into your comforter. Rather, it will break you open, pierce you intellectually, emotionally, or aesthetically, and wriggle its way under your skin. Gross, but true. A great poem will leave you itching and raw, wondering how it got past your defenses.

Jane Kenyon was just such a writer. Her poems, lovingly collected by her husband, Donald Hall, in the volume titled Otherwise, often employed stream-of-conscious leaps from image to insight, eliciting a physical effect that was jarring and expansive despite her subjects: small birds, short walks with a dog, a pond, a window, things found in a drawer. She wrote about loneliness, depression, and love in a way that was both deeply individualized and, because of those quick leaps, all-encompassing. Using those small moments, she perfected the art of infestation through poetry.

There are other reasons why Kenyon's words were able to wriggle under my particular skin; like me, she followed her husband to a small town where she knew no-one, like me, she fought against isolation and familial pressures, and like me, she became intimately entwined in her environment. Unfortunately, Kenyon battled depression until her too-early death from cancer. But within her graceful leaps of language, she expressed a childlike wonder and an unflinching steeliness, both of which allowed her to gaze into the deepest wells of humanity. It's no wonder, then, that her work is so affecting, and so timeless.

I will continue to think of Jane as I battle the mice brigades, and any other strange thing thrown my way--squirrels, wasps, ashes, musty smells. I will take it all in, as Jane did, and try to understand it from the inside out.

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