Once There Was Light

Edward Munch, “The Sick Child” (1925)

Spiritual Sunday

My dear friend Rachel Kranz, whom I spent several days with last week in a Bronx hospital, has had a heart attack on top of her ovarian cancer—cardiac arrest for six minutes—and is currently on a ventilator. The news has upended me as we had both thought she was getting better. Now we are getting varied reports from different doctors, some positive (there is eye contact and the heart suffered no damage), some negative (treating one problem leads to others). Please pray for her.

Looking for poetic comfort, I came across a Jane Kenyon poem written while she herself was suffering from cancer. It reminded me of the many talks I had with Rachel as we tried to make sense of what was happening to her.

The figures in the poem that anger me the most are the voice who squelched her childhood optimism (1); the smug religious voice contending that belief in God will dispel her depression (3); and the orthodox religious voice (I think) who disrupts a beautiful dream about mingling with souls both alive and dead (5).

The first voice she describes as a “mutilator of souls.” She lets the second pass without comment, and the third voice “arrives like a crow that smells hot blood.” By telling her that “I never let my dear ones drown,” this last voice—which claims to be supportive–asserts the conventional division between the living and the dead, thereby depriving her of a more vibrant understanding.

Along this line, I am currently reading the Booker Award winning Famished Road, by Nigerian author Ben Okri, which describes a far more fluid relationship between living and dead souls. The book has been described as “magical realist,” but Okri objects to the label because, for him, this intermingling is reality, not magic at all.

By the end of the poem, Kenyon has found transcendent moments that temporarily drown out these negative voices: listening to her dog breathe; experiencing short pain-free interludes when she can focus on marriage, friends, “pink fringed hollyhocks,” “my desk, books, and chair”; and hearing a wood thrush at four in the morning.

At such times, life has never seemed so holy.

Having It Out with Melancholy

By Jane Kenyon

If many remedies are prescribed
          for an illness, you may be certain
          that the illness has no cure.
                              A. P. CHEKHOV
                             The Cherry Orchard

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad—even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours—the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.

Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors—those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born.

For a few moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life—in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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