Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise”

At home, trapped in social distancing—a sort of self-quarantine—while the pandemic rages. Lots to do. Lots to clean and organize, lots to read, lots of dreams and regrets to indulge. But what can I do that’s fulfilling or inspiring?

My immediate desire is to sharpen my skills, to do something small well. To show myself that I can build, execute a strategy, make a plan that works.

There’s a not-so-slight unease. The future, perhaps, is a limit on what is meaningful. And the future does not look good. One example: When I think about mass unemployment in a society cultishly devoted to the idea that some people work and therefore deserve—as if Donald Trump, Jr. has a real job— and others only deserve scorn, I also wonder about a world eager to neglect others, eager to forget they exist. Neglect can be a form of power, and people desperately want to feel power.

In short, the full trauma of unemployment has yet to be conceived. The full assault on the dignity of those who worked hardest but cannot continue, and those who earnestly wish they could work, has yet to be witnessed. It won’t simply be scorn from grifters looking for quick ratings on radio and television by having meltdowns about who is a “taker” and who isn’t. It will be a climate of opinion dictating who is allowed to speak at all, who is allowed a voice. One might say we live in this situation already, and I grant that’s true. I just know that it could get a lot worse, as unimaginable as that seems.

I know it could get so much worse for the conflicts people have with their own selves. How to justify oneself to oneself with little or nothing to do? “They also serve who only stand and wait” is majestic, but so remote. The world was remade from when that was said, in part to deny the truth underlying that statement.

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In “Otherwise,” Jane Kenyon deals with the unimaginable with every step: I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. The unimaginable magnifies the real, frames it. Even with all the panic I feel, I didn’t think twice about getting out of bed on two strong legs this morning. But Kenyon has a heightened sensitivity to what must be real, what life has to be, precisely because it will be lost:

Otherwise (from the Library of Congress' Poetry 180 project)
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.

She describes a life in which she identifies and loves details. The beauty of things becomes visible to her through her experience. Not just strong legs with which to walk, but sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. Two experiences in particular constitute a peak in the poem: I took the dog uphill to the birch wood and At noon I lay down with my mate. The recognition of what one might term sensitive souls (e.g. animals, dependent on sensation to engage the world) and rational ones (herself and her mate) follows her listing of cereal and peach, which one could say are products of nutritive souls. The rationality she and her mate employ has an Aristotlean character–it searches for an end to human life, asking implicitly how best to live and love. All morning I did the work I love.

Still, it might have been otherwise. Perhaps it is natural to live and love, but not everyone has the same experience, and even those with lives we consider blessed do not experience the same forever. Kenyon presents us with an image of conventionality, a social ritual firmly placed in a human, all-too-human world: We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. Something about the “peak” of existence, of being created on the 6th day, is not completely satisfactory. It might have been otherwise points to the problem of temporality, of dependence on time, but while I just spoke of that I don’t think it’s the only issue. The most visible problem, living in the shadow of death, serves to highlight the other ones. In this case, we can readily see another one: the necessity of love and acceptance by other human beings creates a realm unto itself.

It’s a realm centered on artifice, on image-making. “Silver candlesticks,” “paintings.” I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. We build our lives to fit certain images, even when we ask hard questions. Perhaps the fundamental problem is precisely the dreamlike character of human existence. Kenyon painted a picture in which she participated in and shared the work she loved. She and her partner searched and encountered natural wonders. Temporality, again, indicates the issue—even to live and love and be loved is not enough—but is not itself the issue. The issue is more or less akin to knowing that one day it will be otherwise. That whatever that knowledge is, in a key sense it is beyond us.

She somehow finds strength and dignity in the face of uncertainty and the end of life. I cannot believe this is disconnected from the attentiveness the poem displays. Most days I can’t remember what I did, let alone tried to accomplish. But “Otherwise” takes every moment and makes it a painting unto itself. Not just a set of images, but words that conjure for each of us very specific experiences and memories. There isn’t a hint of neglect in what might be a model for courage.

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