The Poetry of Death

When death, as public as a President or as private as a lover, overwhelms us, it speaks itself in elegy’s necropoetics.


[J]ane Kenyon and I almost avoided marriage because her widowhood would have been so long, between us was there such a radical difference in age. And yet today it is twenty-two years since she died, of leukemia, at forty-seven—and I approach ninety. I was a high-school freshman and decided to write poems five years before Jane was born. She finished primary school in 1958, the year that I took a teaching job in her home town of Ann Arbor. With me came my wife, Kirby, and my son, Andrew; my daughter, Philippa, arrived three years later. The marriage crumbled after a decade, and I endured five wretched years of promiscuity and booze. To our endless good fortune, Jane and I found each other and, three years later, I quit teaching and we moved to New Hampshire. My children came east for their education and remained here as our neighbors. In my twenty years with her, everything in my poetic history happened again, this time to Jane: her first poem in Poetry, her first book, her second, an N.E.A. fellowship, her third book, a Guggenheim, her fourth book, multiple poetry readings, her reputation rising and spreading.

When we knew for certain that she was about to die, she told me the whereabouts of her unpublished poems, and I read them for the first time. They were dazzling, and I faxed them to the New Yorker. When we heard back from the poetry editor Alice Quinn a few days later, Jane’s eyes were open but she couldn’t see. I told her that Quinn was taking seven poems. She had stopped speaking, but her oncologist said that she could still hear.

Poetry begins with elegy, in extremity, as Gilgamesh laments the death of his companion Enkidu, watching worms crawl out of Enkidu’s neck. Homer sings of heroes as they die in battle, and Priam weeps to see the body of his son Hector dragged around the walls of Troy. Virgil follows Aeneas from the graveyard of Troy to the founding of Rome, Dido’s pyre flaming on the way. In the fifteenth century, poetry emigrated from Chaucer’s England north to the Scots, where William Dunbar wrote his elegy for the makers—in Greek, a poet is a “maker”—and grieved over twenty-five dead and dying Scots poets. Not a line from them remains. In “Lament for the Makaris,” Dunbar writes:

I that in heill wes and gladnes,
Am trublit now with gret seiknes,
And feblit with infermitie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Hary and Sandy Traill
Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
Quhilk Patrik Johnestoun might nocht fle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The refrain translates as “the fear of death confounds me,” but conturbat is more violent than “confounds.” A few years later, in Shakespeare’s English, Hamlet dies, Lear dies, and Prospero dies. In Milton’s “Lycidas,” the vowels of lament are golden, as erotic in sound as they are in “Paradise Lost,” but the grief is formal, not intimate; literary, not literal. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” embodies grief before resolving it by theology. The profoundest or most mournful American lament is Whitman’s for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” A great elegy from the seventeenth century, rooted among the best poems of the English language, is Henry King’s “The Exequy”:

Accept thou Shrine of my dead Saint,
Insteed of Dirges this complaint;
And for sweet flowres to crown thy hearse,
Receive a strew of weeping verse . . .

His bride has died in her twenties: “Thou scarce had’st seen so many years / As Day tells houres . . . ” In almost a hundred lines, tetrameter couplets hurtling with a passion of grief, King looks ahead to his own death and the inevitable reunion with his bride. It is not compensatory.

Sleep on my Love in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good night! Thou wilt not wake
Till I thy fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sickness must
Marry my body to that dust
It so much loves; and fill the room
My heart keeps empty in thy Tomb.

When Jane and I lived in New Hampshire together, we suffered the deaths of dear friends and of cousins. Edna Powers, the granddaughter of my grandfather’s brother, was a parishioner of the South Danbury Christian Church—affectionate, large, warm, outspoken. She died, in her late fifties, on the operating table at the Franklin Hospital. I read Henry King’s “Exequy” aloud.

When death, as public as a President or as private as a lover, overwhelms us, it speaks itself in elegy’s necropoetics, be the subject a twenty-five-year-old bride or Enkidu or Edna Powers or Blind Harry or Abraham Lincoln or Jane Kenyon. “The Exequy” kept me company again when Jane died.

[W]hen I was nine or ten, Great-Uncle Wilfred felt a pain in his back at Cousin Nannie’s funeral. We buried him five months later. I woke in the night hearing myself declare, “Now death has become a reality.” My first poem, at twelve, was “The End of All.” At one point, I decided that if we flattered death, it might spare us, so I wrote “Praise for Death.” Between my two years at Oxford, I returned to the United States for my own wedding. My New Hampshire grandparents couldn’t attend—the year before, my grandfather had suffered a malfunction in a heart valve. The day after the wedding, before sailing to England, Kirby and I had only a day to drive to the farm where I had spent my childhood summers, listening to my grandfather’s stories, haying with him every afternoon, eating my grandmother’s chicken fricassee or red flannel hash for dinner. My mother’s father, Wesley Wells, had been my life’s love, the measure of everything. Kirby met Kate and Wesley; we ate a hen fresh from the henyard; we chatted; and when Kirby and I started upstairs for sleep, Wesley could not help but tell a funny story. The night he and Kate married, Kate’s cousin Freeman had wired a cowbell to their bedsprings.

Three days later, Kirby and I boarded the Queen Elizabeth for England and Oxford. In March, the airmail letter from my mother arrived—transatlantic telephone calls had to be scheduled—telling me that my family was burying my grandfather. In our Banbury Road flat, for a season, I sat at my desk writing “An Elegy for Wesley Wells,” fiercely iambic, making him the high point of the dying world. “Soon I will leave, to cross the hilly sea / And walk again among the familiar hills / In dark New Hampshire where his widow wakes.”

[T]wo and a half years after our wedding, Kirby gave birth. When the baby turned out to be a boy, we named him after my father and me, Donald Andrew Hall. We would call him Andrew. Every night, with pleasure, I gave him his 2 A.M. bottle. Every day, I worked on a poem called “My Son My Executioner.” The New Yorker published it, an anthologist put it in a college textbook, teachers assigned it, and for decades textbook anthologies reprinted it. I was the fellow whose son strapped him into the electric chair.

My son, my executioner,
I take you in my arms,
Quiet and small and just astir
And whom my body warms.

Sweet death, small son, our instrument
Of immortality,
Your cries and hungers document
Our bodily decay.

We twenty-five and twenty-two,
Who seemed to live forever,
Observe enduring life in you
And start to die together.

In Andrew’s first autumn, Kirby enrolled for her senior year of college. We had married after her junior year. I fed Andrew breakfast while his mother took classes and studied or wrote papers at the library. I gave him his bath, played with him, changed his diapers, put him down for his morning nap, changed his diapers again, walked around with the baby on my shoulder, and gave him another bottle. At noon Kirby relieved me. I liked to be part-time mother while remaining the father of my executioner.

[M]y father turned fifty-two on December 6, 1955. He died, of lung cancer, two weeks later, and we buried him, on Christmas Eve, in the Whitneyville Cemetery in Hamden, Connecticut, a block from the house he grew up in. During his seven months of dying, I drove the two hours to see him once a week. He could not speak outright of his approaching death. In a low voice that cracked and shuddered, he murmured, “if anything . . . should happen . . . to me . . .” Week after week I watched as his skin paled, he grew frailer. My mother, Lucy, rubbed his balding head. He died a few hours before one of my weekly visits. The last time I sat with him alive, I thought that every breath might be his last. I had not yet observed the brain-stem breathing—three quick breaths, a pause, and a long one—that I would see as my ninety-seven-year-old grandmother, and, twenty years later, my wife, died.

Everyone was there for my father’s funeral. My grandmother took the train from New Hampshire, from the tiny depot of Gale, three-quarters of a mile from the farm. She wore her Sunday black dress. Kirby brought Andrew, and I remember him playing with a plastic toy telephone. My mother, a widow at fifty-two, hadn’t had a night’s sleep for many months. She would live until almost ninety-one without dating another man. It was cold as we buried him in the early darkness.

For many months afterward I worked on “Christmas Eve in Whitneyville.” I used Thomas Gray’s stanza, if not the rhythms, of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It was the best poem I had written, and it lamented that my father never did what he wanted to do. “’The things I had to miss,’ you said last week, / ‘Or thought I had to, take my breath away.’ ” I decided that, for the rest of my life, I would do what I wanted to do. I sent the poem to the Kenyon Review, the prestigious literary magazine of its day, and John Crowe Ransom accepted it, calling it “pious.”

[J]ane’s own necropoems began when her father died. During his cancer, she and I flew from New Hampshire to Michigan and, with her mother, took turns staying up all night beside him. Not long after he died, Jane’s poems attended my almost-death. Two years before her leukemia, I lost half of my liver to cancer. My surgeon said that, after such an operation, a man of my age had a thirty per cent chance of living five years. We wept driving home from the hospital. She showed me her poem “Pharaoh” as I lay in bed recovering from surgery:

I woke in the night to see your
diminished bulk lying beside me—
you on your back, like a sarcophagus
as your feet held up the covers. . . .
The things you might need in the next
life surrounded you—your comb and glasses,
water, a book and a pen.

“Is it all right?” Jane said, bending anxiously over me in the bedroom’s half-light. Jane had the habit of repeating a difficult sentence with a heavier emphasis. She said again, “Is it all right?” “It’s a wonderful poem,” I said as I finished it. I paused and added that, yes, it was remarkable to read of my own death, I was so used to writing about other people’s. When I was still skinny with chemotherapy, she showed me a draft of “Otherwise” beginning:

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.

As she showed me the poem, it ended two stanzas later: “But one day, I know, / it may be otherwise.” I wonder if Jane suspected that I would change a word; frequently, we revised each other. I crossed out “may” and wrote “will.” And so it was, but not as we assumed.

When, twenty-odd years later, the New York composer Herschel Garfein set several of my poems to music for tenor and piano, he mentioned my name as he visited the medical school at Columbia. “Oh, yes,” a doctor-teacher told Garfein. “We use him.” After I published my book of poems about Jane’s death, many medical schools used me. Sometimes they invited me to read to their students and to answer questions. Twice, the University of Utah flew me from New Hampshire to Salt Lake City to read my poems at the School of Medicine. I told student doctors about our oncologist, Kris Doney, in Seattle, where Jane had her bone marrow transplant. Dr. Doney adhered to Jane’s suffering and to my own as husband and lover. After the successful transplant and our return to New Hampshire, when Jane’s leukemia outwitted her new marrow, Dr. Doney flew cross-country for Jane’s funeral.

Stories of dying and death used to reside outside medical discourse. Death was medical failure, and doctors concentrated on the not yet dead. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, attention turned to the only event common to everyone. In 1967, in England, the doctor Cicely Saunders founded St. Christopher’s Hospice, not to prolong life but to comfort the dying. Death and grief were subject to intimate analysis in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying.” Gradually, we have equipped ourselves to think and talk about the dread of terminal suffering. Palliative care has become a medical profession, and dying the subject of lyric and narrative attention. Columbia offers a master’s degree in narrative medicine, directed, appropriately, by Dr. Rita Charon. A doctor at the Yale School of Medicine, Anna Reisman, quoted Jane’s last poem, “The Sick Wife,” on NPR, saying that doctors still “don’t really understand what patients are going through.” Ira Byock wrote “Dying Well.” Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” was a bestseller for a year. Every season adds to the literature of dying. Necropoetics includes necromemoir. The young neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi wrote “When Breath Becomes Air” as he was dying of cancer at thirty-six. Smitten with multiple tumors, he continued to operate on patients. While dying, he made his suffering into a devastating memoir. Last year, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Jed Myers, a psychiatrist who lives and works in Seattle, wrote “Poetry’s Company” after he watched his father die over six months of glioblastoma. He quotes from my poems about Jane’s death, then from my friend Christian Wiman, afflicted for decades with his own multiple cancers. Myers ends by addressing the medical profession. “I commend to you, fellow physician, the pragmatically useless treatment called poetry, whereby we might leave our patients less alone when our medicine leaves us all alone.”

[B]efore she became my student, Jane had lived a quiet, rural life, just outside the bustle of Ann Arbor. Her parents were musicians, and she grew up in a house full of books. In junior high, she started writing poems and keeping a journal. She enrolled in the University of Michigan, flunked biology, dropped out, took a job, returned to major in French, studied to be a teacher, switched to English, and took my lecture course in Yeats and Joyce. The following year, she applied to take my poetry workshop, and most of the poems she submitted were slight and fantastic, a habit of the moment that Robert Bly called “light verse surrealism.” Yet one of her poems was darker and stronger. She wrote of trying to capture the attention of her sick grandmother, approaching the hospital bed “like the young nurse with the needle.” The image brought her into my class and altered our lives forever.

In the first three years of our marriage, when we stayed in Ann Arbor, she worked on poems mostly when I flew out of town to do poetry readings. When I was at home my presence appeared to inhibit her. In New Hampshire, for the first time, she worked on poems every day. Here she had no job, no local past nor friends. We had each other, we had our house, we had our landscape, we had my cousins in the small white clapboard church. Every day was devoted to each other or to making poems. She wrote tentatively about inhabiting my place, my history. She saw, or imagined she saw, my ancestors haunting our kitchen. She floated in space like an astronaut detached from the mother ship—or was she attached? She found in the shed a woman’s long gray hair.

A poet from Ann Arbor had moved to Boston, a woman Jane’s age who belonged to the Alice James Poetry Cooperative. Joyce Peseroff recruited Jane, and the Cooperative published her first book, “From Room to Room,” in 1978—the beginning of her career in poetry. Jane and Joyce started a poetry magazine, Green House, addressing their generation of young poets. It was eight years before Jane did another book, the second of the four, but as she published new poems in magazines she came to national attention. I remember when the New Yorker bought its first poem by Jane, “Thinking of Madame Bovary.”

The year when Jane published her first book, I brought out my seventh—that’s what she had to put up with. “Kicking the Leaves” was a breakthrough for me, deriving its force from the ecstasy of marrying Jane and the change from university teaching to life in New Hampshire. My bland first collection, in 1955, had been overpraised. When the second book followed—and the third and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth—no one paid much attention. (Just before “Kicking,” I published a prose reminiscence of older poets. Friendly reviewers found it ironic that the author of “Remembering Poets” had once been a promising poet.) “Kicking the Leaves” was reprinted many times, selling in the end ten times as many copies as my first six titles together. With my marriage to Jane and my return to old sources, I had found myself as a poet.

Meanwhile, Jane’s reputation bloomed, poem after poem and book after book. Three or four times a year she workshopped with Peseroff and Alice Mattison, who published short stories in the New Yorker, and would return from the three-woman workshop triumphant. I watched her excitement and progress with joy and envy.

For decades, she and I had written what could be described as the same sort of poem. It was free verse—mostly short poems in lines of largely similar length, delicate rhythms with forceful enjambments and an assonance of diphthongs. My earliest poems, long before Jane and I knew each other, were rhymed and metrical. Ten years after Jane’s death, out of love for Thomas Hardy and the seventeenth century, I wrote metrical poems again, many of them about Jane. But in the long middle of my life I improvised, like Jane, a sensuous sound without meter. Our work had been different enough—people knew us apart—but we belonged together to a stylistic consensus. Then, as Jane moved from glory to glory, the language of my poems began to diverge from hers. In one lengthy collection, my lines became more ironic and more ingenious in structure. A subsequent, still weaker book collected brief plain poems of anecdotal reminiscence. It appeared just after Jane died, and a compassionate reviewer attributed its failure to my anguish. Over the years I have come to understand how or why my poems altered and deteriorated. Working beside her, I felt overwhelmed as I read “Let Evening Come” and “Briefly It Enters.” I admired the embodiment of her struggle with depression in “Having It Out with Melancholy.” I remember when she handed me “Twilight: After Haying,” one summer after a neighboring farmer finished cutting our fields:

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed—
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
—sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen . . . the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses. . . .

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

Such sensuous beauty. As the dew falls the soul eases into bodily receptiveness. These devastating enactments of Jane’s art became daily events. The emotional abundance of her language climbed to the summit of literary achievement, the pupil exceeding her teacher, and I made my poems as unlike Jane’s as I could manage.

[W]hen Jane was put to bed in Dartmouth-Hitchcock, an hour north of our house, I rented a motel room next door and spent every day with her. I took notes in brief lines of verse—observations, anecdotes, humors, terrors. I found and used a few of these lines later, when I assembled my poems of her death. Only six months into Jane’s leukemia, I had drafted the poem “Without” in the present tense. She had been diagnosed in January. In the New Hampshire Hospital, as we waited for a stranger’s bone-marrow match and a flight to Seattle in late August, I saw the trees begin to turn yellow from the window. I had not noticed the melt of March nor the green leaves when they arrived in April. We inhabited not the natural world but the landscape of leukemia. I read a draft of “Without” to Jane. From her bed, Jane said, “You’ve got it, you’ve got it!” A year later, I put the poem into the past tense, and eventually it became the title of my book of Jane’s death.

In the weeks after her funeral, I drove four times a day to her grave. I read novels only if they exercised rage and misery—“No Country for Old Men,” not “The Ambassadors.” I took pleasure only in disaster: Oklahoma City, an airplane crash in New York with everyone killed. My days were misery, except for an hour in the morning, when I revised the wailing and whining I had drafted beside her hospital bed. Today I realize that these death poems had already begun to bring my language back to life. One morning I looked out of the window at her garden. Her peonies, basketball-sized, stood tall and still unopened late in May, with weeds starting from the black earth around them. I began the poem that, by autumn, became “Weeds and Peonies.”

Your peonies burst out, white as snow squalls,
with the red flecks at their shaggy centers
in your border of prodigies by the porch.
I carry one magnanimous blossom indoors
and float it in a glass bowl, as you used to do.

Ordinary pleasures, contentment recollected,
blow like snow into the abandoned garden,
overcoming the daisies. Your blue coat
vanishes down Pond Road into imagined snowflakes
with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging,

but you will not reappear, tired and satisfied,
and grief’s repeated particles suffuse the air—
like the dog yipping through the entire night,
or the cat stretching awake, then curling
as if to dream of her mother’s milky nipples.

A raccoon dislodged a geranium from its pot.
Flowers, roots, and dirt lay upended
in the back garden where lilies begin
their daily excursions above stonewalls
in the season of old roses. I pace beside weeds

and snowy peonies, staring at Mount Kearsarge
where you climbed wearing purple hiking boots.
“Hurry back. Be careful, climbing down.”
Your peonies lean their vast heads westward
as if they might topple. Some topple.

It was Jane’s “prodigies”; it was Jane’s “magnanimous” blossoms; it was Jane who saw Gus’s “great tail swinging” and the “repeated particles” of snow. After her death I was able again to assume a diction as potent as Jane’s. I revised and finished “Without” and “The Porcelain Couple” and “The Ship Pounding.” I wrote “Letter With No Address” in our common language, and continued my posthumous one-way correspondence through “Letter After A Year.” After “Without,” I continued to write about Jane in “The Painted Bed,” sometimes returning to metrical forms. In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiralling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the singular absence of flesh.

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