Beauty and Banality in Jane Kenyon’s “Chrysanthemums”

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.

***

Chrysanthemums

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…

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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.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Jane Kenyon photo in the public domain

Large chrysanthemums photo by P.L.Tandon, Bengaluru, India https://www.flickr.com/photos/13070711@N03/  

Small chrysanthemums photo by George Lezenby, Lansdale, Pennsylvania  https://www.flickr.com/photos/65089906@N00/

8 comments to Beauty and Banality in Jane Kenyon’s “Chrysanthemums”

  • Al  says:

    Thank-you, Andrew. Life is chock-full of paradox, the beautiful and the banal and the lovely juxtaposition of the two so well captured in this poem. The longer I live, the more simultaneously bitter and sweet life becomes. For a memoir along the same lines I recommend a book written by Nina Riggs, the great, great, great, granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson called “The Bright Hour” about her brief life after being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. Bitter and sweet.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    This one hit hard personally. At a recent gathering with old pals not seen in over 40 years I was deeply struck by the ravages time had taken on the bodies of men that were once elite athletes. We shared stories of ailments, catastrophic and otherwise, and the changes wrought by the aging process on us all. My story of a severe ischemic stroke suffered nine years ago became a focus for a few of my old friends. They marveled at the surgical process and therapeutic efforts that I had undertaken. In my telling of the story came a realization that both during the actual experience 9 years ago and now in the subsequent memory share, the most bizarre, frightening, and seemingly horrific details of the surgeries and the long climb out of the dark hole of a traumatic brain injury was, in many respects, a series of ordinary gestures and daily life routines. Kenyon’s work touches me deeply as she catches this remarkable edge of mortality and the mundane so beautifully and accurately.

  • Bruce Curran  says:

    Andrew.
    A wonderful piece. It prompted two thoughts. First, Jay’s comment really resonated with me and all I could think of was ” Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio”. It also made me think of A. E. Houseman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” which touches on a number of these themes.
    The other response was to your comments about your experience with your father’s passing. About two years ago next month we had a string of relatively unexpected deaths in the family. About three days before Thanksgiving my ex wife passed away suddenly at the age of 68. A month later about 3 days before the New Year my mother passed away. She was 92 and in relatively good health up to a week or so before her passing. As my sister said it was sad but not tragic. Just about a month later my brother in law who was in his early 70’s died suddenly. We did not see each other too often but he was a good guy and way too early. My reactions to each of these was different, thoughtful and sad but not devastating even though they kept coming.
    But this past March my oldest friend, Tom, succumbed to leukemia four days before his 70th birthday.
    We met in 8th grade and I had known him for 58 years. I am sure we all have people who are in that inner circle of two or three special individuals who are throughout your life the closest to you no matter how frequently or infrequently you see them. Each meeting is like it was yesterday or last week. This one death has by a factor of ten outstripped the emotional impact of the string of deaths two years ago.
    I would not have predicted this reaction in myself especially after my previous experience. Your personal comments sort of touched that same nerve. Most perplexing the ebbs and flows.
    .

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      “Most perplexing the ebbs and flows” indeed, Bruce. That sense of discovering (and being surprised by) one’s feelings on any given matter rather than thinking we can decide what they’re going to be is something us males still find challenging, I think. But women have been pounding on us about it (figurative speech there) for oh, the last 10,000 years or so, and I do think it has started to seep in!

      And that loss of an old-oldest friend, who knew you “when,” who knew your family, your girlfriends, your flights of fancy, who came to weddings and funerals, is a loss of a different order than all others. Sorry you faced that so (relatively) young.

      Thanks also for the Houseman poem reminder. Has been decades since I came across it.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Thank you, Al, couldn’t agree more on the simultaneous bitter-sweet nature of life, working in tandem, each going ever deeper, tragedy walking hand-in-hand with joy down to a depth of pure understanding. Meanwhile, I will gird my loins and look that title up; it’s the least I can do to honor both you and Ralph Waldo! (Besides which, I am like a moth unto flame with memoirs involving early death…)

    Jay, that “series of ordinary gestures and daily life routines” you mention are also so extraordinary on so many levels that it humbles one even to think of them. We went by the hospital tonight to help comfort a friend whose spouse is facing a life-and-death circumstance, and gazing up at that building as we drove off, we considered first the hundreds of patients and their family members facing a crisis of deep concern to all of them. Then we marveled at the hundreds more people—along with millions and millions of dollars—marshaled to help those patients deal with and heal from the illnesses and accidents that led to their hospitalization. All quite astonishing, and heroic, I might add, though all rooted, too, as you suggest, in everyday routines, to which every player—patients, nurses, therapists, lab techs, doctors, et al—are devoted in their own way. Thanks for sharing your own powerful tale in that drama.

  • Tamara Stanley  says:

    Thank you Andrew! “….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…..” Beautiful and SO very true. We have all experienced that moment when the ordinary meets the extraordinary — I so appreciate you identify those moments. This poem made me remember some feelings I have felt during other loss in my life. You are so good…. hugs.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I’ve tried writing about my parents’ passing numerous times but to no avail. Perhaps I just don’t know where to begin or how to capture 67 years in a paragraph or two. I wrote a eulogy for my mom, who died 8 years ago at the age of 90. My brothers and I did readings from my dad’s World War 2 journal for his memorial; he was 96. While the eulogy touched on how much she meant to everyone around her, particularly family, I felt it was more biographical than emotional. Reading “Beauty and Banality in Jane Kenyon’s “Chrysanthemums” and the subsequent responses captured the essence of my experiences with my parents’ death. Claire, however, was torn apart by her son’s death (age 29) from a failed double transplant (pancreas-kidney) and wrote an essay describing the hell she went through…tear stained pages. While watching my father, who has written a number of books and completed the Sunday “New York Times” in a couple of hours at age 92, be unable to compose a single line was tough. In fact, toward the very end, he couldn’t talk so I created a list of words (ice, water, bathroom, pain pill) on a piece of paper, and he would point to the one he wanted.

    Reading Jay’s comment was right on, except I”m not sure “elite” accurately describes the Moon Wagoneers. However, I welcome the compliment no matter how steeped it is in hyperbole. Thanks, Jay.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    …Sunday “New York Times” crossword puzzle…omitted crossword puzzle.

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