The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon by Donald Hall. Houghton Mifflin, 2005; 258 pages; $23.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: Donald Hall's celebrated book of poems Without was written for his wife, Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995. Hall returns to this powerful territory in The Best Day the Worst Day, a work of prose that is equally "a work of art, love, and generous genius" (Liz Rosenberg, Boston Globe). Jane Kenyon was 19 years younger than Donald Hall and a student poet at the University of Michigan when they met. Hall was her teacher. The Best Day the Worst Day is an intimate account of their 23-year marriage, nearly all of it spent in New Hampshire at Eagle Pond Farm -- of their shared rituals of writing, close attention to pets and gardening, and love in the afternoon. Hall joyfully records Jane's growing power as a poet and the couple's careful accommodations toward each other as writers. This portrait of the inner moods of "the best marriage I know about," as Hall has written, is laid against the stark medical emergency of Jane's leukemia, which ended her life in 15 months. Hall shares with readers -- as if we were one of the grieving neighbors, friends, and relatives -- the daily ordeal of Jane's dying, through heartbreaking and generous storytelling.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: "Jane Kenyon died of leukemia at 7:57 in the morning, April 22, 1995" is the first sentence of this unsparing and beautifully structured memoir. She was only 47, and the struggle was harrowing... Alternating with the meticulous account of the progress of Kenyon's disease are warm, joyful chapters as Hall recalls their time together.... Hall wrote about Kenyon's illness and death in his 1998 book of poems, Without, but this heartfelt memoir should reach people who seldom read poetry and could be a natural for reading groups.
From The Hartford Courant: Hall writes in loving detail of Kenyon's final months. In alternating chapters, Hall provides clinical details of her barbaric chemotherapies followed by descriptions of the simpler joys of their workaday world, the world they once took for granted and longed to rejoin.
From New York Observer: I don't think I've ever read a book that so fully describes the way illness can take all other air out of the room. Yet this book is not depressed or simply sad. Of course it's tragic, but Mr. Hall knows that tragedy hits everyone one way or the other. And he's most himself, I think, imagining others. In Seattle, in the hell -- the promising hell -- of bone-marrow transplant, he hears the unreachable screams of children in the same state. Yet he knows children have a much better chance of recovery than Jane does. But crying is in order, and sometimes joy gets washed away by tears quicker than pain: I defy anyone to read aloud -- without collapsing -- the passage on their dog's ecstasy when they come back in remission from Seattle.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Donald Hall, born in 1928 in New Haven, Connecticut, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry for The One Day (1989), the Lenore Marshall Award for The Happy Man (1987), the 1990 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America for Old and New Poems (1990), and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in New Hampshire.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the morning we spoke, Mr. Hall was at home in his New Hampshire farm. His telephone line hissed and buzzed. Some of his sentences disappeared entirely. I repeatedly interrupted our conversation, saying, "I can barely hear you. Could you say that again?" When we began our talk, however, I said that before I dialed his number I had reread some of his late wife's poems."
"I think more and more people are reading her," he said. He added that more wonderful women poets were being published. He cited Jane Hirshfield as one of the best. "Isn't she good?" he said, enthusiastically. "I think she's a wonderful poet. She never knew my Jane, unfortunately."
I came away feeling that Mr. Hall's memoir ended being as much about the course of Jane Kenyon's suffering as about the compassion and patience that her suffering taught Mr. Hall.
He agreed. "Yes. It came quickly. But it just took all of me, every bit of me. I've heard stories of many people, more men than women, who just can't supply it. Being around the negative, being around suffering, probable death. They just have run away.
One time out in Seattle, one of the social workers said, 'Why don't you take a little holiday? Go down to San Francisco for a few days.' I was exhausted but I just couldn't imagine such a thing. When she was in the hospital, I was prepared to get there about 6 a.m. I really hurried to get up and get dressed and get there and be with her. I couldn't do much for her. But I had to be there. I wondered sometimes if my constant presence wasn't yet another burden. But I didn't feel as though I had a choice but to be there."
"In today's medical world you need to be there just to keep an eye on what is being given the patient."
"And to interpret, yes, and to remember what Jane couldn't remember. That was important. Some of the doctors were amusing about me; they started to tag me 'Dr. Hall.' Our principle oncologist out in Seattle gave me her stethoscope that she'd received as a graduating senior from medical school.
"I was very touched that she came to the funeral. I've seen her several times since. I've been to Seattle twice and she came to visit me here once. And the principle New Hampshire oncologist, we see each other fairly often. I go up to that hospital for one reason or another to get some exams myself. But there's also a friend who lives nearby whom I'm driving up for chemo now and I will always wander around the hospital. I'm very fond of all the people that took care of Jane. We had terrific help."
In an earlier memoir, Life Work (1993), written while his wife was still well and alive, Mr. Hall disclosed his illness with and recovery from cancer. While he was ill, he said, "Jane wrote wonderful poems about my imminent death."
"And here you are -- alive."
"Yes. Here I am, 76 damn years old. The irony is that this book is me about her rather than the other way around. But I really have been feeling good about this book. The last 17 months during which I wrote it, I didn't do any poetry. Typically in my life as a writer I've worked all day on different things, short poems and so on. But I just couldn't do anything but this book. I worked many hours a day. I think that every page was gone over at least 25 times. I kept changing sentence structure and getting rid of an adjective.
"But I loved working on it. I love working. Because in these circumstances it's almost as if you're doing something about a horrible thing that happened. As if you're repairing it, which you can't do, of course. There was that impetus as well as the love of writing these sentences. People thought of my writing Without and writing this book as suffering by revisiting the suffering. That is really not true. I'm certainly revisiting the suffering, which I am anyway. Remembering. Constantly. But I'm revisiting it now in a way to memorialize it, to make it into something fixed and permanent as a monument to Jane. Also, I was happy in this book to talk about our marriage, our time together, that happy stuff."
"You had a wonderful marriage."
"Yes. We struggled, of course. I had cancer; we had troubles. At times we were anxious about money. I got lucky. I wrote that children's book Ox-Cart Man, which won the Caldecott. The Caldecott is a prize that actually sells books. There were wonderful illustrations by Barbara Cooney. I did write the text, but it was also a picture book. And so you have to say there's been a lot of good luck in my life."
"Jane Kenyon became exceedingly beautiful in her early 40s."
"Ah, she became so beautiful. You know, when I married her she was not a particularly pretty girl at 24. She had a pretty figure. But her bone structure was so gorgeous and those big, heavy glasses that she had to wear before she got lenses kept you from appreciating her cheekbones. She just became a knockout. She was about 40 when she came into her beauty. Amazing.
"There are several pictures in my study of Janie in a bathing suit and the one reporter who was here wrote that I had pictures of the young Jane in a bathing suit, looking glamorous, you know."
"Are you writing poems again?"
"Yes, I am. For the first time in my life, as I said, as I was finishing this book, I was not writing poems. Then a year went by and I thought, 'Well, maybe it's over.' But it's been coming back and lately for the last year I've started quite a few. Not as many as I used to but I started two or three in the last couple of weeks. I work on them every day. I'm putting together for next year a big selected poems. My last selection was 1990. I'm trying to cut out old stuff because it's going to be too big. It may be 400 pages.
"I have usually avoided that writer's block syndrome by working on so many things at once. It's also temperament. There are some people who just can't work that way. I don't write so many different things now. But I think maybe I'm beginning to expand again. I hope I am.
"I've recently done a couple of little tiny reviews and I just did the introduction to the Yale Encyclopedia of New England --- a million word book that's going to come out next September. I had some fun doing that. Between poems or work that I can take more seriously, I love to have things that are just a job of work. I've been able to do a new children's book, mostly since Jane died, there were a couple in process at that time that came out. But I've written about a dozen and I do enjoy it, but nothing's been coming out right. Maybe that will come back."
"The company of your own mind must be in its own way delightful."
"Yes, and I like my solitude. Jane and I were so, so much 'a double solitude,' as I keep saying. We were in the same household all day. I was in one part of the house and Janie in another part of the house. I have a girlfriend now who comes one day a week. And it's wonderful. I'm very fond of her. But when I'm alone it's more like when I was with Jane."
"Of course, you were an only child."
"That's right. We're different. I was a weird only child. My parents both read all the time. They didn't read great stuff but I grew up thinking, 'This is what grownups do after supper.' We had the radio, of course, in my days. A weekly ritual was to listen to Jack Benny."
"The radio made you imagine."
"Absolutely. Books required you to imagine even more, you had to be more active."
"Poetry, when read well aloud, creates a strong presence in a room. Is it difficult for you to read Ms. Kenyon aloud?"
"No, not at all. No, I triumphed over that. It's a time of fulfillment and a continuation of the partnership. We were a joint enterprise."
"A Mom and Pop poetry store?"
"Absolutely, mom and pop. And at the end, when she was too sick to write, and I was sitting beside her writing, it occurred to me that this could upset her, because she couldn't write. But she was happy that one of us was writing.
"After my cancer adventure, when I was supposed to die, and I was having chemo and lying in bed in the dark, I remember Jane tip-toeing in and handing me a copy of a poem she was writing about what was believed to be my imminent death. 'Do you mind?' she asked. I said, 'It's weird, but it's wonderful.' And there she was writing about my death and showing me the poems. When she had leukemia I was writing about her illness and probable death. And I was reading her the book."