In the maelstrom of energy flooding paper, press, and print about the sudden death of Kurt Vonnegut, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about his life. At 3 a.m. last night, I was running around the Internet linking to articles, gobbling up details of Vonnegut’s death, birth, slow literary beginnings, and 70’s cult following.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.
Ignoring the wailing Irish banshee, a screaming voice inside my head snapped, “Stop it! ! Go to bed! You haven’t read a Vonnegut book in years.”
“Okay, okay, I’m going,” I said.
Rising from my prone position on the couch, I grabbed the laptop precariously perched on my knees to keep it from crashing to the floor. And that’s when it hit me – I’d fallen prey to my own crazy Kantian schema about death, dying, and immortality.
In some odd twist of synchronicity, I wrote a post last Monday on The Uses of Sorrow – What Is It About Obituaries? Curious about the death of Molly Malone Cook, I found a long, engaging obituary in the Independent. It was overflowing with history and details of her life I didn’t know, and probably never would have cared about if she hadn’t died.
Isn’t it strange? We are drawn to write more about a person after they die, than we ever would have while they were alive. It’s part of the human condition. But amid all the writers, ex-hippies, beatniks, and bohemians bantering a slow death march around Vonnegut, I find myself wanting to say, “Enough already.”
Forget Vonnegut. Jane Kenyon lives on.
I don’t want to sound irreverent. I loved Vonnegut and read him voraciously (was it Stephen King that said adverbs are killers?) in my early college years. In 1972, Slaughterhouse-Five was the top film in Friday night screenings at McIntire Hall. We were still doing sit-ins for peace, streaking across campus, and protesting the Vietnam War (I wonder what’s changed?)
But back to living and dying.
Remember that back and forth on red Ravine last February about Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, Valentine & Donald Hall? It inspired us to put one of Jane Kenyon’s books, Otherwise, on our list of Hungry to be Read.
Last night I went over to St. Paul with a writer friend to see Galway Kinnell and one of his protégés, Josephine Dickinson, read their poetry. (I’ll write more about these moving poets in another post.) It was one of the most inspirational nights I’ve had in months.
If you don’t get out and listen to other living, breathing writers read their work, you’re missing out on one of the greatest pleasures of writing – listening. As evidenced by the explosion of blog world, there are 11 trillion writers out there, all wanting their voices to be heard. I hold to my strong belief that there is room for all of us. If we are generous of spirit and support other writers, we’ll be supported, too.
I teared up last night when I listened to Galway Kinnell read his poem for Jane Kenyon (1947-1995). He went to that dark place writers go, that place where angels fear to tread.
I imagined Kenyon, immortal through his words, smiling down on the silent, rapt faces that dotted the crimson velvet rows and stacked ornate balconies of the Fitzgerald Theatre. I bet she was pleased.
Losing a great writer who influenced our lives, perhaps even our livelihood, leaves a big hole. When Galway Kinnell read How Could She Not, I knew that writing about the death of Kurt Vonnegut is our way of grieving.
We know we’ll never forget Vonnegut. Because Jane Kenyon lives on.
Friday, April 13th, 2007
How Could She Not
In Memory of Jane Kenyon, 1947-1995
The air glitters. Overfull clouds
slide across the sky. A short shower,
its parallel diagonals visible
against the firs, douses and then
refreshes the crocuses. We knew
it might happen one day this week.
Out the open door, east of us, stand
the mountains of New Hampshire.
There, too, the sun is bright,
and heaped cumuli make their shadowy
ways along the horizon. When we learn
that she died this morning, we wish
we could think: how could it not
have been today? In another room,
Kiri Te Kanawa is singing
Mozart’s Laudate Dominum
from far in the past, her voice
barely there over the swishing of scythes,
and rattlings of horse-pulled
mowing machines dragging
their cutter bar’s little reciprocating
triangles through the timothy.
This morning did she wake
in the dark, almost used up
by her year of pain? By first light
did she glimpse the world
as she had loved it, and see
that if she died now, she would
be leaving him in a day like paradise?
Near sunrise did her hold loosen a little?
Having these last days spoken
her whole heart to him, who spoke
his whole heart to her, might she not
have felt that in the silence to come
he would not feel any word
was missing? When her room filled
with daylight, how could she not
have slipped under a spell, with him
next to her, his arms around her, as they
had been, it may then have seemed,
all her life? How could she not
press her cheek to his cheek,
which presses itself to hers
from now on? How could she not
rise and go, with sunlight at the window,
and the drone, fading, deepening, hard to say,
of a single-engine plane in the distance,
coming for her, that no one else hears?
-from Strong Is Your Hold, Poems, by Galway Kinnell, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006