With a first line stating “The doctor averted his eyes,” we sense that whatever the title suggests in this crystalline Jane Kenyon poem, it will not be a rapturous ode to flowers. Then comes the second line containing the word “diagnosis,” and we know we will likely be traversing some troubling ground, ultimately revealed as a series of snapshots coalescing around her husband and fellow poet Donald Hall’s colon cancer in 1989.
Nevertheless, chrysanthemums do play a role.
Hall, 24 years older than Kenyon and her professor at the University of Michigan before marrying her in 1972, survived his first bout with the illness that Kenyon chronicled in this poem, then fought off its return three years later when it had metastasized to his liver and doctors gave him slim odds for recovery.
Four months ago, he died at the ripe age of 89, a former poet laureate of the United States and a well-respected professor, writer, and critic. He had outlived Kenyon by nearly a quarter century, she having succumbed to leukemia in 1995 at age 47.
So much for age disparity being a natural disqualifier for romantic love.
Kenyon was a famously transparent poet who holed up with Hall in his old and drafty New Hampshire farmhouse, working across the room from him for many years writing poems about the sensory sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the things around her. Calves being born, decaying potatoes, war scenes on the television, memories of her mother.
“Chrysanthemums” is a slightly longer poem than I usually deal with here, but there’s almost nothing opaque about it, so the reading flows right along, almost essay-like, rich in imagery and implication for a life closely observed. Let’s settle in with it before returning for some discussion.
The doctor averted his eyes
while the diagnosis fell on us
as if a wall of our house had suddenly
given way. We were speechless
all the way home. The light seemed strange.
He’d left his watch on the doctor’s desk
and the next day we went back for it.
A weekend of fear and purging . . .
Determined to work, he packed his
dictaphone, a stack of letters,
and a roll of stamps. At last the day
of scalpels, blood, and gauze arrived.
Eyes closed, I lay on his bed waiting.
From the hallway I heard an old man
with his nurse, who was helping him to walk:
“That Howard Johnson’s. It’s nothing but
the same thing over and over again.”
“That’s right. It’s nothing special.”
Late in the afternoon I heard casters
and footsteps slowing down.
The attendants asked me to leave the room
while they moved him onto the bed,
and the door remained closed a long time.
Evening came . . .
While he dozed, fitfully, still stupefied
by anaesthetics, I tried to read,
my feet propped on the rails of the bed.
Odette’s chrysanthemums were revealed to me,
ranks of them, in the house where Swann,
jealousy constricting his heart,
paid calls late at night.
And while I read, pausing again
and again to look at him, the smell
of chrysanthemums sent by friends
wavered from the window sill, mixing
with the smells of disinfected sheets
and drastic occasions.
He was too out of it
to press the button for medication.
Every eight minutes, when he could have
more, I pressed it, and the morphine dripped
from the vial in the locked box
into his arm. I made a hive
of eight minute cells
where he could sleep without pain,
or beyond caring about pain.
The most ordinary gestures seemed
cause for celebration, as if
he were a baby figuring out how
to roll over and push himself upright.
Over days the i.v.’s came out
and freedom came back to him—
walking, shaving, sitting
in a chair. Hazy with analgesics
he read The Boston Globe, and began
to talk on the phone.
He turned pale and stopped talking
while a sweating third year student
pulled out the staples, returning
three times to the obstinate one.
I brought him home, round-shouldered
and numbed up for the trip. He dozed
in the car, woke and looked
with astonishment at the hills, gold
and quince under October sun—a sight
so overwhelming that we began
to cry, he first, and then I.
Pick any stanza above and you can find gems not so much of insight or wisdom but of example in how to attend to the life unfurling itself in front of you. Observing this acutely is no small task, and the fact that poets do it so well is why they are paid the big bucks. (That’s a sad joke, of course, poets being as desperately destitute as they tend to be.)
In the white heat of a cancer diagnosis for her beloved, Kenyon notes and remembers that the doctor “averted his eyes.” She and Hall are speechless all the way home, the image of the wall of their house suddenly giving way a near perfect simile for the sense of stupefaction and unreality one feels in such moments.
“This can’t be happening, can it? Is this really happening?”
Then she notes the most banal of events: Hall had forgotten his watch, so the next day they go back for it.
Why is this line in a poem about the smell and beauty of flowers, set against against the horrors of a life-threatening illness?
The answer is simple: Because that’s exactly how life is. We endure the most appalling, world-shattering experiences—a cancer diagnosis, news of an accident suddenly removing a beloved from our lives— while we hear the battery-operated clock above our heads tick off another minute of time, tick-tock dumb, tick-tock dumb…And in the distance, a neighbor’s high-pitched giggle pierces the night air as she watches a sitcom.
A piece of us wants to scream right back through that night air: “Stop, World! Just Stop! Don’t you realize what just happened to me?”
But of course, you don’t, and the world wouldn’t hear you if you did. It just goes on, its 7 billion people and trillions of other creatures and organisms wholly unaware, involved in their own lives and uncaring of your troubles.
Many years ago, we scattered my father’s ashes from a boat outside Newport Harbor and then repaired to a dockside restaurant for a family meal. Attending to the most basic biology, I stopped off at the bathroom, and as I stood at the urinal, I noted a distinct film of dust dulling the underlying sheen of my loafers.
As I peered more closely through my still tear-filmed eyes, I realized it was what was left of my father, clinging to my shoes at a urinal on my way to taking in nourishment that would help sustain my own life. All this while also monitoring my emotional equilibrium in the face of the solemn ritual we had just concluded to bid my father adieu.
The moment struck me as both jarring and ordinary: life and death and their biology commingling in a moment succeeding all the other moments I had lived up till that moment, now observed and frozen in my memory, just as the trip back to get Hall’s watch amidst the collapse of her world had become frozen in Kenyon’s.
Aside from a brief literary allusion to Proust’s “Swann’s Way” in the lines about Odette’s chrysanthemums, most all else in this poem is along the same lines of everyday life contending with the extraordinary: the nurse’s jabbering about the crappy food at the quintessentially middle-America Howard Johnson’s motel chain, followed closely by the labor-intensive shifting of her husband to his hospital bed, not fit for her eyes as the caregivers keep the door closed “a long time.”
And then the marvelous introduction of the poem’s title, the intense sight and smell of chrysanthemums in all their fulsome beauty, mixing with “the smells of disinfected sheets/and drastic occasions.”
Drastic occasions! We all know what that means and smells like in a hospital setting—though only a poet would put words to it thusly.
Kenyon’s juxtaposition of this beauty/decay continuum is a masterful stroke before she moves on to noting the celebration of “ordinary gestures” reminiscent of a baby’s first triumphs as her temporarily retrogressing husband reacquaints with the most elemental self-care skills of life.
Then to wrap it all up in the final stanza, we have a “sweating third year student” (who has to learn and practice his skills on someone, so why not on her precious, pained husband?) pulling out Hall’s surgical staples, the last of them described as “obstinate.”
An obstinate staple—how can one not fall in love with poetry when encountering such an image?
Trailing right along in the finally conquered staple’s wake, however, is the drive home (home!), Hall dozing, Kenyon driving along a road no doubt traversed countless times before, seen now, though, through a fresh prism. He awakens to the sight of the familiar hills in familiar October light, and does the only thing possible for a soul so attuned to acute appreciation of all that is, and his own fleetingness within it: He begins to cry.
And so does she.
Another of Kenyon’s best-known poems—”Let Evening Come”—has been set to music here, with the poem appended to the You Tube file by yours truly for your reading pleasure…
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Large chrysanthemums photo by P.L.Tandon, Bengaluru, India https://www.flickr.com/photos/13070711@N03/