The Best Day The Worst Day, by Donald Hall

I recently finished reading Jane Kenyon’s collected poems which left me missing her and wanting more. And so I picked up The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon written by Kenyon’s husband–the esteemed poet Donald Hall.

While the subtitle of this book is “Life with Jane Kenyon,” I would argue that it is not so much about Kenyon’s life with Hall as it is about her death, her dying. Yes, Hall does recount memories and vignettes of their life together, particularly how it was they came to live in their beloved farmhouse in New Hampshire. Mostly I found this touching book to be about a husband moving through the process of grief, of holding on and of letting go.

This book easily could have been bleak and self-pitying (Hall was in remission from colon and liver cancer at the time of Kenyon’s illness. On top of this he cared for both his dying mother and Kenyon’s dying mother), but instead it is uplifting even though we know how it ends: Kenyon dies and she is too young to die and we all want her and her words back. Throughout the book Hall’s prose is both beautiful and matter-of-fact–as he captures so eloquently the aching monotony of caring for a loved one who is dying:

The days were endlessly the same in the way that the ocean is the same although it moves without pausing. The ocean differs when there is fog or when the sun is out, when a packing case or a patch of seaweed floats by, but differences only intensify the daily nightly sameness. When you are so sick, there is nothing wherever you look that is not sickness.

This book is also about what makes a relationship strong (“Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment”) and advice for young writers:

It is a smart idea for young poets to edit. An editor becomes seriously in touch with the poetic moment. Finding fault with other work, you find the same faults in your own, product of the same moment. You work hard to make good judgments and sometimes you fail: A poem you returned is printed elsewhere and looks good; the wonderful poem you accepted with enthusiasm six months ago reveals itself an embarrassment in print. If you make such mistakes, doesn’t every editor? You learn to take editors less seriously–so that neither acceptance nor rejection seems crucial or authoritative.

In the end, though, it is about what it feels like when the one you love dies and what are those threads that carry you through to this end, what are those threads that bind you:

Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexity of feelings in their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears.

This week I also watched the video Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon: A Life Together. It was moving to hear them both read and to separately answer Moyers’s questions. Particularly so in that this was just before Kenyon’s illness and just after Hall’s. The prognosis from his liver cancer was that he would not live many more years.

In one poignant moment, Kenyon tears up as she begins to read a poem she wrote about Hall’s illness. They both thought he would die first. But Hall lives on (“I am old, hobbling through my eighth decade, but I do not fret about dying. I am able to love and to work”), as does Kenyon’s memory–in no small thanks to this loving book.

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