Having It Out With Melancholy (OP)

8th August 2005

On a Yahoo list I am on someone posted this poem…

Having it Out with Melancholy

by Jane Kenyon


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.


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.


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.


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. . . .


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.


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 wrote about how I thought one of the things the poet was doing was writing a riposte to Keats…

It would seem to me that by the deliberate use
of ‘easeful’ and the fact that Kenyon too is talking about
bird-song (albeit wood-thrush rather than nightingale)
she is writing a well deserved riposte to Keats. The Keats
is of course wonderful lyric poetry but any depressive
who has walked close to suicide will say that in fact there
is nothing beautiful or poetic about it – it is the pit of black despair
when life seems an intolerable burden – Keats is perpetrating
a dangerous lie. Kenyon makes her bird-song on the
contrary expressive of life and hope – the song of the thrush
draws her to that most wonderful thing “ordinary contentment’ rather
than Keats suicide. The states of mind are carefully juxtaposed.

What followed however was sad in that there was a sort of falling-out about the poem which seemed to escalate rapidly

It is so difficult to talk calmly about something like depression because everyone’s experience is so acute, so personal, so near to the nerve edges.

I had intended to use this blog to talk about my own experiences but find that I have hardly done so at all – only the long silences, testaments to periods when I am depressed, periods of silence and voicelessness. When my voice comes again I am, by definition, not depressed, undepressed. And in the past I have always tried in those periods to forget, to obliterate, my memories of being depressed. To concentrate on the positive and all the other buzz-words and concepts that the Cognitive Behaviourists would endorse. Maybe for some this works. For me it is another form of repression. A repression both personal and political. Some of the posts I read in the discussion on the poem emphasised this latter point.

So I intend to talk a great deal more about depression. It is salutary for me to do so and makes a blog purposeful in that the very act of writing may be therapeautic irrespective of the fact that all I write remains unread.

So this could be a long series.

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