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Life with Jane Kenyon

by Donald Hall

Pub Date: May 10th, 2005
ISBN: 0-618-47801-9
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Intimate, excruciating memoir of the life and death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, by prolific author Hall.

Hall (Willow Temple, 2003, etc.) segments his story into periods of the couple’s 23-year marriage, starting from Kenyon’s terrible early death from leukemia in April 1995 and reaching back to their first in meeting, in 1969, at the University of Michigan, where Hall taught literature and Kenyon, more than 20 years younger, was a student and fledgling poet. Most of their married life was spent rustically at the Hall’s family farm in Wilmot, N.H., where the two cultivated gardens, wrote poetry, worked freelance and experienced a kind of reclusive solidarity next to each other. Curiously, their harmonious life of poetry was documented only the year before Kenyon’s death by Bill Moyers in the PBS broadcast A Life Together. But Kenyon’s diagnosis with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) changed everything, and she underwent immediate and devastating chemotherapy, a steady infusion of poisons and drugs through her Hickman incision, intractable pain and enervating side effects, such as dementia and depression, that compounded her existing depression. The prognosis is poor for a woman of 46 (ALL usually strikes children), and Kenyon endured an agonizing bone marrow transplant in Seattle from an anonymous donor (whom Hall later met). For 15 months, the inseparable couple battled the disease raging in Kenyon’s blood: Hall depicts their kinship poignantly, sparing few details of human fragility and debilitation. The days of Kenyon’s virtual imprisonment inside a sterile cell (her LAF room, for “laminar air flow”), while she was pumped with a steady flow of poisonous Cytoxan, reads like a scene in a death chamber. “Rarely, during LAF, could I do something useful for Jane,” Hall laments. In alternating chapters, he portrays the creative, peaceful life the two carved out for themselves, both of them dedicated to their craft.

A moving tribute, unsparingly honest. The harrowing close is almost unreadable.