Living and Dying a Poet: A Celebration of Joy and Pain

The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon, by Donald Hall. Houghton Mifflin, 258 pages, $23.

Jane Kenyon died in the morning 10 years ago, at three minutes before the 8 o’clock news, with her husband, Donald Hall, beside her, in the long, two-story, white clapboard house, Eagle Pond Farm, where they lived in Wilmot, N.H. She had been ill with leukemia since early 1994, but it was only for the last 11 days that they’d been certain of the end. Before that, there was the possibility that a bone-marrow transplant (done in Seattle) might oust the disease. It was not to be, so Mr. Hall’s helpless tenderness in caring for her now faced a change: “I touched her and kissed her, but not so often as I wanted, because with whatever consciousness she maintained, she was concentrated on letting go.”

That’s on page 1, and if you think death is the worst thing, then you must be patient for the firm, brave descriptions of all the things done to preserve life, or the chance of it. “I touched her … ” is a very fine sentence, though you feel that more in your own breathing as you settle into Mr. Hall’s rhythm, than as any striving for glory in the writing. He is a poet, like his wife, and the two of them lived in their house, in the long winter sieges and the heady, gasping summers, reading, writing and measuring out the words like cords of wood that would be needed before spring. (And up there in New Hampshire, spring can hang you up the worst.) Still, it’s a writer’s life and a writer’s death, and 10 years after the last breath, all the rhythm of breathing and waiting comes in as harvest. And now it is glory, a bright, wonderful book, as grave and strong as Ives heard across the snow, as lively facing death as the peonies Jane Kenyon planted outside the house.

Jane had been Donald’s student at the University of Michigan, so there were 19 years between them, not to mention her bipolar illness and the natural difficulties within the outward harmony of two poets living together like doves. Some doves are eagles. But in 1975, not long after being married, they agreed to live in New Hampshire. The University of Michigan was reluctant to let Donald go, but he insisted in the end and that meant free-lance income and-I suppose-freelance health care. He had been married before, and he had children. With Jane he agreed to have no more: Being together would be their thing. And so for 20 years nearly, her being as a poet grew stronger while he did poems, reviews, sports writing, writing for children and many letters.

Bit by bit, they improved their house and its garden. They had many friends. They had mothers that would have to be escorted all the way to death-it’s a vital part of this memory of one illness that both their mothers die in the same span of time. Donald had his own cancer. And they simply told the friends who wondered, “Well, what do you do here?” that they watched each other and their words, country life, food, animals and weather. There are pages in this book where you can easily think yourself in the 18th century, and north of Boston and south of Canada there may be a more deeply felt history than anywhere else in this country. (Much of the same territory also clings to the Red Sox on the radio-at one point Mr. Hall talks of missing a key moment in Jane’s illness as if he had missed Carlton Fisk’s homer. And he knows his people will know which one.)

Then Jane falls ill, and so many other things in life lapse as Donald is driving to hospitals in New London or Hanover. 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.

It’s not really decent to review a book like this, much less question the author on words or strategies. But I do want to stress that the reading will bring intense pleasure and steadfast honesty and courage to those who are not well themselves. Mr. Hall has an innate feeling for order, so he knows after especially severe sections on treatment that his book will benefit from a flashback that gives us China and India, and then another on their last busy year of health. So it’s not trivial or tasteless to admire the language, because I think the writing-and the waiting to write this book-are exactly congruent with the life Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon lived.

“Life” in the singular, because we feel how much of it was a unity. That’s not to say that they were not also the livers of separate lives, dismayed sometimes, cold and unkind sometimes, as blocked as poets and writers are for 95 percent of the time. In other words, this is not an idyll or a paradise. Though it’s so far from an autopsy as to be startling. It’s a book about life, and I read it in a day and a night. Does it need more or less? Well, just one thing-increasingly relevant to more and more lives. How did two free-lancers pay for it all, and how did they have the patience to fill out all the forms?

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf). He reviews books regularly for The Observer.