Today, a poem for Ronan by Jane Kenyon, a deeply wise poet. Her work articulates truths about life in a graceful, intelligent way that is full of – I don’t know how else to say it – goodness, and she does all this without pretension or artifice. She probes the” shadow” side of life, and instead of rejecting it she embraces it, swallows it whole, finds beauty in every crack, every corner of our human contradictions and delusions. Kenyon battled depression, which she faces openly in her poems; as well as leukemia, which took her life in 1995 at the age of 48, but she documents her struggles without howling, without unnecessary flourish.
Ronan makes me happy; his face, his toes, his fat feet. The way he raises one eyebrow; his contemplative looks; his full-on smile. Held in that happiness, of course, is the knowledge that he is already lost. Of course this is the truth about all of our relationships, but it’s harder to accept this knowledge while holding a baby. Kenyon is helping me dwell in that uncomfortable area often described with this annoying cliche: the day we are born is the day we begin to die.
Kenyon subverts our notions of happiness as something bombastic and dramatic, she doesn’t allow it to be simplified as a feeling that gets stuck inside itself, or boiled down to a chicken soup for the soul or some other pithy notion. Instead she carves it out, makes it known and textured, in those still moments we don’t think about; she makes it part of a continuum of emotions, rather than the goal of any life. In so doing she makes it possible for all of us to know happiness – and even more importantly – to recognize it, because her definition of the word includes enthusiasm as well as despair; curiosity as well as boredom; the ache of loneliness as well as the elation of being found.
Today, to happiness – for these moments now that we don’t want to miss, and for other moments in the future that we are unable, as yet, to see or fully understand.
There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.
-From Otherwise (Graywolf Press, 1996).