Sunday, February 21, 2010


One of my favorite contemporary poets is Jane Kenyon. I discovered her lucid, clear words about fifteen years ago, when I just happened to stumble across one of her books. After I finished, I searched out another, and then a third. I was hungry to read everything she had ever written, and hopeful that she was feverishly working away so there would be more poems soon on the printing press.

I had to go to Chicago for a business trip that year, and brought along my latest Kenyon volume, "Otherwise: New and Selected Poems." And so it was there, on a queen-sized bed at a Comfort Inn, scanning the inside flap of the book jacket, that I read of Kenyon's death due to leukemia in 1995. She was 48 years old. Before I even found her, she was already gone. As alive as she had been for me, she was six months in the grave before I read her first poem.

I actually wept. She had become a friend, a fellow writer, a sister. I carried her with me everywhere. And now, out of the darkness, some cruel fate had reached in with his ugly, taloned hands, and snatched her away from me. There would be no more poems.

That makes the work she left even more precious. Here is one of my favorites:


The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.

I can't bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.

This is such a simple, sweet poem, with such incredible depth of feeling. Looking just on the surface, I know this experience. Having dogs of my own, I can see exactly what that dog face looks like, full of trust, completely open, unafraid of showing expectation.

But the poem goes far beyond that. The reference to the priest and the communion wafer elevates us to another spiritual realm, the offering of the "body of God" to the believers, those innocents with their upturned faces. And then the whole power inbalance, the priest/believer, the person/dog, the giver/receiver. "I in my power..."
I think that's what resonates most for me: "I in my power..." It reminds me of the recent sangha discussions we have had about coming to terms with the fact that simply by existing, we take from those around us. We do harm, so that we can live. And because we are in that position, the position of making a choice as to what we will eat/consume/kill/take...we are in that place of power. The dog is the innocent face looking up at us, never once suspecting that he could be the one who is denied/unfed/unloved.

It seems that I must be fully cognizant of my "power" before I can be truly compassionate. It makes me think of the bodhisattva vow: "Beings are numberless; I vow to save them." In order to take that vow, we must recognize that we do have the power to save ourselves and others. And for me, one time that this power becomes visible is when I look into the trusting face of my dog, waiting for a biscuit.

1 comment:

  1. This part about needing to come to terms with the power we have to affect others' lives--and the inability to escape the violence of causing harm as we go about the business of feeding ourselves and going through life--in order to have compassion really resonates for me.

    Re: Jane Kenyon, have you read her husband, Donald Hall's poems about grappling with her death?

    Lastly, I also have the experience of feeling so close to a poet through her work and then feeling very emotional about finding out about her own circumstances. It was a couple of years ago that I found out that Mary Oliver's partner died in 2005, the same year my dad died . . . and I cried about that, even though of course I've never even met either of them. AL