Jane Kenyon, “Afternoon at MacDowell”

Afternoon at MacDowell (from Poetry)
Jane Kenyon

On a windy summer day the well-dressed
trustees occupy the first row
under the yellow and white striped canopy.
Their drive for capital is over,
and for a while this refuge is secure.

Thin after your second surgery, you wear
the gray summer suit we bought eight
years ago for momentous occasions
in warm weather. My hands rest in my lap,
under the fine cotton shawl embroidered
with mirrors that we bargained for last fall
in Bombay, unaware of your sickness.

The legs of our chairs poke holes
in the lawn. The sun goes in and out
of the grand clouds, making the air alive
with golden light, and then, as if heaven’s
spirits had fallen, everything’s somber again.

After music and poetry we walk to the car.
I believe in the miracles of art, but what
prodigy will keep you safe beside me,
fumbling with the radio while you drive
to find late innings of a Red Sox game?

Comment:

Maybe you know better than me, but I have no idea what to do in the face of death and loss. If there is a philosophic bone in my body, it has me staring at the end like a deer in headlights. Now there are hints of some sort of afterlife everywhere. Note the first stanza’s “well-dressed trustees” under a canopy that may be nothing but sun and clouds (“yellow and white”), flush with what graces their life (“capital”).

Those hints are easily seen as artificial. That seems to be one problem with our notion of an afterlife; we’ve shaped it with our expectations, either willingly or subconsciously. There may be a more natural approach to the problem. Some people in this life have had a second chance (reading into “second surgery”). The past is both continuous for them – that gray suit fulfilled its ostensible purpose – and transformed into something else entirely. That “fine cotton shawl” was bought with expectations that, at this point, belong to different people. Yet this is an after-life: these two lives are continuing, though being and perhaps meaning something else entirely.

The third stanza shows something that might be considered miraculous. So here’s everyone all dolled up, poking holes in the lawn with their chairs and sitting under a neat canopy. It’s all picture perfect because the sun and clouds are out and that much grander. There is “golden light” everywhere. The artifice depends on something natural that it is mimicking. But that natural phenomenon is completely alien to where the speaker is. When the sun retreats behind the clouds, it literally feels like the world is a different place. (Incidentally, one thing that came up in Thucydides over and over: men would mimic the destruction of natural phenomena. They would be devastating in their own way while being utterly pathetic in another. The plague and factional strife were compared such).

The power of nature, essentially, is beyond us. We bask in its glory, which we don’t even recognize half the time. Our music and poetry are graced by it, as they were that afternoon. Still, the speaker knows the crucial issue of beyondness. Art – artifice – does have its own power. The man in the gray suit has a life after health issues; the afternoon seems to have been memorable. Art works precisely because it addresses some sort of human concern in the midst of the transcendent (obviously, at times even just pointing to the transcendent). The depth of the universe is overwhelming; as creatures in it, we narrow our vision and focus just to get anything done. This results in our peculiar miracle: we love in the face of loss. Not art, not nature, but something prior – and we hope – beyond it all.

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