Three Small Oranges

November 22, 2006 at 1:23 pm 5 comments

Jane Kenyon

Listen (Donald Hall reads)

My old flannel nightgown, the elbows ut,
one shoulder torn….Instead of putting it
away with the clean wash, I cut it up
for rags, removing the arms and opening
their seams, scissoring across the breast
and upper back, then tearing the thin
cloth of the body into long rectangles.
Suddenly an immense sadness….

Making supper, I listen to the news
from the war, of torture where the air
is black at noon with burning oil,
and of a market in Baghdad, bombed
by accident, where yesterday an old man
carried in his basket a piece of fish
wrapped in paper and tied with string,
and three small hard green oranges.

Another Donald Hall reading, this time a poem by his wife, Jane Kenyon, taken from her collection Constance (1993).

I’m not a huge admirer of Kenyon. Oh, I like her work, but I find it pleasant, not remarkable. Don’t get me wrong – her poems are tender and evocative and exquisite – it’s just that, to me, they are ultimately uncompelling. I think of them as a series of accomplished watercolours trying to capture the light of an interior landscape – the kind of paintings you walk through the gallery admiring, but that leave you with an overall sense of quiet beauty rather than a specific memory of one unforgettable painting. [1]

Part of this has to do with the fact that I find the world that Kenyon describes too insular, too static. All this quiet desparation in the passing seasons of New England is fine for a poem or two, but spread over volumes of poetry it starts to feel wearying [2]. These are well written poems, but as she puts it herself (in a lovely poem called ‘The Blue Bowl’, about the burial of a cat) “There are sorrows keener than these”. Tragedy, in Kenyon, is domestic, and while there is much to be said for the trembling of leaves, spending long hours watching these delicate transitions of feeling leaves me feeling cramped.

My favourite Kenyon poems are the ones that reach out of themselves and connect to narrative, to a larger sense of the outside world – the superby and pithy ‘The Sandy Hole’ (a reading of which, by Hall again, is here), for instance, or this poem today. What I like about this poem is the way Kenyon connects two details – one domestic, the other distant – to bring out the same sense of sadness for some harmless thing violently destroyed.

Plus, I love poems that invest the everyday with meaning, that take some mundane event and transform it into something visionary and intense, and ‘Three Small Oranges’ does that superbly, taking the familiar practise of tearing an old garment up for rags and making it stand for so much more.

[falstaff]

P.S. The poem is also a nice lead into our soon-to-be-starting new theme – Poems about War.

Notes:

[1] Simic, in the article I mentioned yesterday, quotes Hayden Carruth as describing Kenyon as “our Akhmatova”. That, in my opinion, is ridiculous. Kenyon doesn’t come close to the passionate intensity of Akhmatova, or to the extent of Akhmatova’s political engagement.

[2] To be fair, part of this may be because I read Kenyon’s Collected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2005) – all 360 pages of it – in two days straight.

[3] Re-reading the poem makes me think of a second reason I’m not that fond of Kenyon. Her poems are full of exquisite bits, but they’re rarely poems that I would consider perfect. Take this poem. Do we really need the “Suddenly an immense sadness…”? This would have been so much better a poem without it.

Audio courtesy of the University of New Hampshire Library, which has a page dedicated to Kenyon with a number of other audio recordings of her work.

Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Jane Kenyon. Tags: .

To a Waterfowl Paradise Lost

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Pearl  |  November 29, 2006 at 7:44 pm

    How long will the war theme last? Peace making and understanding as a dynamic of war/peace or purely war?

    Reply
  • 2. Revealed  |  December 15, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    The ‘listen’ under the name feels like an admonishment

    Reply
  • 3. Pearl  |  December 18, 2006 at 9:55 pm

    Where’d you all go? More poems coming?

    Reply
  • 4. falstaff  |  December 21, 2006 at 6:22 am

    Pearl: See new poem. As of now, mostly war. Though we’re open to suggestions

    Revealed: If the shoe pinches…

    Reply
  • 5. Teju  |  January 12, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    I was prepared to agree with you about “suddenly, an immense sadness” but I find I can’t. It works, I think, because its true to how one trivial sadness (that of losing a favored garment) suddenly switches over to a much greater one (the fact that an old man with his oranges can be “accidentally” killed at a marketplace.)

    Without that linking phrase, I might have read the poem and said, “So?”

    Reply

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