Wednesday, April 9

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, April 09, 2014 14 comments
by Jane Kenyon (1947-1995)

If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV The Cherry Orchard

Photo by damoiselle at

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad -- even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
"We're here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated."

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours -- the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

           2  BOTTLES

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.


You wouldn't be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

           4  OFTEN

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep's
frail wicker coracle.


Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors -- those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few

moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
"I'll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!" After that, I wept for days.

       6  IN AND OUT

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life -- in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .

           7  PARDON

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

           8  CREDO

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you'll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can't
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can't sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can't read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.


High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.


I hope you'll forgive the length of today's offering, because it's a powerful piece. Researchers have found a strong link between depression and creativity, so it's a small wonder that many writers and poets struggle with this illness. Many, like Sylvia Plath, take their own lives. This poet, though she struggled with depression her entire adult life, died of leukemia, not suicide.

Her snapshot approach with the stanzas is striking and worth emulating. When trying to tackle a large topic that has many faces, giving us facets rather than an integrated narrative is quite powerful. That she ends with a scene of finding tranquility and beauty (thanks in part to the medication Nardil, an MAOI) gives the piece a hopeful air. The "unholy ghost" of depression may come again tomorrow, but Kenyon is determined to keep fighting it.

What lines or images stand out to you?


  1. Thank you for sharing this today, Laurel. I have family members who struggle greatly with depression, and it's a strange and painful illness - solved differently for each person, but never truly gone, which is something that I think many don't understand. Someone struggling with depression may find a medical prescription aid that helps them most of the time, or they may find a particular program of exercise and naturopathic aids that help, but with any of these, there is never a total, all-the-time fix. It's a chemical unbalance that we have yet to truly understand . . . and although I think spiritual health is a part of it, it's not the only part. Anyway . . . I could obviously go on about this. I've dealt with this issue for many years as a family care-giver and friend.

    1. Kenyon's piece definitely speaks to the life-long struggle--the sense that this is an illness than can be controlled but not conquered. Wishing you courage and hope as you serve your suffering family members.

  2. Oh, these are powerful. I can relate to that dark, oppressive feeling. How we inherit our ancestors' burdens. Thank you. Favorite line: frail wicker coracle.

    1. There's a very strong genetic component to it, which is especially tough--a kind of whole-family burden. I admire Kenyon's persistent hope in the midst of it.

  3. WOW. So powerful. I'm struck by her (uncomfortably familiar) observation that, in depression's grasp, one is so crippled that one cannot even call for help.

    1. It is a very helpful window into the condition for those who don't suffer. Knowing that the sufferer is so pulled under and unable to help herself should (in theory at least) help caregivers and friends better support and advocate for her.

  4. It also reminds me that even when everyone seems unaware of the pain and desperation felt, one can stand strong when the darkness is pushed away.

    1. As society becomes for comfortable talking about mental health issues, it gets easier for those who suffer to make others aware of the pain so they can get help beating back the darkness.

      Thanks for coming by!

  5. Today's post hits kinda close to home but glad I stopped in to read. My favorite line was chosen because it's exactly where I am: It is tired of trying to be stouthearted, tired beyond measure. and I love your bio. :)

    1. It's a powerful mix of honesty and hope. Thanks for visiting!

  6. Interestingly, when I read the first two sections I thought they referred - at least metaphorically - to the person's mother and their relationship with her, and had that idea as I read down, until it became obvious it was about something far less specific. Which probably says a lot more about me and my life than it does about the poem :/ This sent a shiver up my spine - especially the idea of being 'pulled out of the glowing stream' by a crow 'who smells hot blood'.

    1. This piece is what poets call apostrophe--a poem spoken to an absent person, an object or an idea. I can see how you might read an abusive parent into the "you" role, at least initially. But in Kenyon's case, I think she's personifying her depression as a malevolent being in her life, with her from birth.

  7. Her longing to sleep and dream - I can relate tot hat s I have fairly vivid, story-like dreams.

    1. Truly dreamlife can be more interesting and exciting than waking life. You get the sense that only in sleep does the poet feel freedom from depression's oppressive force.