And I see us both, suddenly, in old-fashioned tennis whites, trying too hard for the point, and completely failing to notice that there's not even a net, for heaven's sake, and I smile across the room (it's not a completely happy smile, but it contains the memory of love, even if love itself is a bit beyond me at the moment) and I call up a little Mary Oliver in "A Pretty Song."

From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.

Poetry has stood by me like the most reliable recipes. It has reassured me like dawn after a bad night (that moment where you lie in bed, thinking, If I can get to 5 A.M., I will be all right). Jane Kenyon, who was the poet laureate of everyday depression and, fortunately for herself and for us, of happiness as well, sits right by me as I am looking for some of that happiness. I can see her pushing back her dark hair and looking at me with the tired, smart eyes of someone who has seen an awful lot of 4 A.M.: "There's just no accounting for happiness," she says, "or the way it turns up like a prodigal..."

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon,
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

And I'm so grateful to have her say it for me, and to be understood by someone I don't know, I get out of bed feeling less alone.

Two of the people I have loved best and most deeply die and my parents grow old. You think Desperate Housewives will help with that? Not even Law & Order, which I prefer to most social life, and certainly to Ambien, will really help. Donald Hall will help. Jane Hirshfield will help.

When his wife, Jane Kenyon, died, Donald Hall wrote the best book of his life, Without. "Her Long Illness" is from that:

It was reasonable
to expect that in ten or twelve months
she would be herself.
She would dress and eat her breakfast.
She would drive her Saab
to shop for groceries...

And Donald Hall goes on, in the next stanza, and I know he's crying the way men do, jagged and ill at ease, writing for me and my dying friends:

"It was reasonable
to expect." So he wrote. The next day,
in a consultation room,
Jane's hematologist Letha Mills sat down,
stiff, her assistant
standing with her back to the door.
"I have terrible news..."
Jane asked only: "Can I die at home?"

Poems for good times and bad


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