“Death in life, and life in death:” On Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise”

Thank you to Lisa Mahaffey & Nancy Devine

Otherwise (from Poetry 180)
Jane Kenyon

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.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Comment:

We begin with four legs, at rest, when all of a sudden two strong ones apart from the bed exercise their strength and move.  Distinctions between animate/inanimate, human and animal drive the first stanza: cereal has no adjectives; milk has “sweet” (taste); peach is “ripe” (a stage of development) and “flawless” (aesthetic judgment). The mind grows in appreciation and thus we can be charged with dominion: we ascend, leading a friendly four-legged creature to certain trees.

But that is part of the “work” one “loves.” Another starting point for wisdom is that it might not be possible to conceive of life without death. We begin again with four legs horizontal, but this time entirely animate; the human has finally met and appreciated the human; the ascent is complete. The descent, though, is not cataclysm or despair. It’s written into human life on a much deeper level. The ritual of eating, the craftsmanship for candlesticks: death begins with the human trapped in the entirely human realm: that is a web we have to weave. We are finally left with our own imagination; the mate cannot be there entirely because we are seeing so many other possibilities. He or she would just be one other, even if we can only imagine ourselves with them. “I know / it will be otherwise” is not predicated on experience, then, but on a deeper truth, perhaps one already said.

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