Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let Evening Come --- Jane Kenyon


Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

--- Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon's Let Evening Come:

A long time ago I settled upon this poem to end the third year of my National Poetry Month Blog. It is the type of poem that you read and cannot forget. The images enter your brain and suddenly the natural world is inside of you. The light, the cricket, the moon, the fox, the wind, the bottle and the oats, and the evening---all of it comes together to deliver a simple truth: there is beauty in this life of ours and even though life will certainly end the beauty will remain with us, just in another form, in the comfort of faith, family, and friends. I read an interview with Jane Kenyon pertaining to this poem. A woman who battled the demons of depression, Kenyon has written some of the most startling and honest verse about the pain and paralysis of mental illness. This poem stands in contrast to her others, working as a harbinger of hope and goodness amidst the many horrors we must endure. As Kenyon said in the aforementioned interview, "How, when there could have been nothing, does it happen that there is love, kindness, and beauty?" I honestly don't know, but thankfully we have poets like Jane Kenyon to explore this question for us.

As the poem starts it is made clear to the audience that this is a poem about the balance of what is coming next and what is happening right now. The conflict between the present and future is fascinating to me: the inherent lineage between what you do now and what you will do next. "Let the light of late afternoon / shine through chinks in the barn" is an opening that serves many purposes. Utilizing a command is a very distinct way to set the poem's tone. In the images, we notice that afternoon is slipping off toward night because it is late, but also we can see it tangibly in how the light is escaping through rough spots in the barn. The metaphor of an aged body of a person who's light---I mean life---is fading is unavoidable. Are we to read something extra into the contrast of the light "moving / up the bales as the sun moves down"?

Kenyon continues the commands, this time advising the cricket to find its call. She compares the cricket to a "woman tak(ing) up her needles / and her yarn." Again we have a comparison that evokes age, but also evokes an earnestness and purposefulness. While knitting might be associated with old woman, the fruits of their labor---hats, scarves, gloves, and other items---serve important purposes to warmth and preservation in cold seasons. The second stanza ends with the first appearance of a refrain that drives the poem and will predictably become the final line of the poem: "let evening come."

We are building to the arrival of evening, just as a well-lived life builds to its end. But the essence isn't in the beginning or the ending, as cliched as it may sound the essence of life is in the living. It is in the dew, but more so in the hoe being used to produce and labor, rather than being "abandoned / in long grass." It is in the stars and moon's "silver horn" because there should be a certain time in all of our lives where night does not signal a stiff ending to our day, but rather a period of discovery and activity. But in this instance, Kenyon uses the stars and the moon as further signals that the close of day is also the close of life's rhythms and essential movements. "Let the fox go back to its sandy den. / Let the wind die down. Let the shed / go black inside. Let evening come." The list is a progression of life, in its many forms, taking natural paths towards closure. Even when closure has occurred in one form, there are other objects and elements of like that remain. Kenyon illustrates this beautifully in the penultimate stanza. For the bottle, useless after its liquid is drunk; for the scoop, useless without a hand to operate it; for the air soon to be expelled from the lungs, these are the items most lonely and prone to loss, still she urges them to "let evening come." But why does Kenyon do this?

Most people are afraid of death, they just choose not to talk about it. I can respect that. Morbid conversations about death are not particularly endearing and even amongst the closest of friends it is a topic that is likely to induce some level of unease and discomfort. What I've come to discover is that while most people are afraid of death, they are more afraid of the unknown and of losing control, the things that death ultimately represents. The unknown is only frightening if you allow your mind and soul to stray from your faith and belief in fellow human beings, in a sublime sense of goodness and balance in the universe, and/or in a higher power. And what is there to fear about losing control, in fact I would argue that we are often at our best when we do not hold total control over a situation. Jane Kenyon's answer and her testament to faith is present in the poem's final stanza: "Let it come, as it will, and don't / be afraid. God does not leave us / comfortless, so let evening come."

There's a certain magic to the fact that many people near death can hold on just long enough to say final goodbyes, as if they have a minuscule amount of control over their mortality, enough to hold out for the little things that are most important to them. Similarly, I find the presages of the gravely ill as to when they will die to be shocking in their accuracy. In our age and experiences we come to know the rhythms of our bodies, just as well as the shortcomings that undo us. We come to see, feel, and hear the world around us, all of it. Some may say we come to know these vital details when all is lost already, when it's far too late for practical use. Jane Kenyon shows us this is not what we should be concerning ourselves with; we should let go and "let evening come" because "God does not leave us / comfortless." I take great comfort in this poem and I hope you do as well.


hunter said...

Matt, thanks for all of your postings, and in particular, for sharing this beautiful poem. A few years ago, one of my dear friends from high school lost her mother to cancer. I was there when she passed on, and ironically, it seemed that we were more upset and scared than she was....God was surely calling her home, and she was at peace and ready to move forward to her next life, where she would be free from pain. We all should be willing to find ways to 'let evening come' in our own lives, and to discover the peace and beauty that it may bring. I hope you're doing well.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hi Hunter! It's so great to hear from you and I'm glad that you enjoyed my blog this April. I love the way that Jane Kenyon illustrates all the areas in life where the end or just a brief pauses approaches. She shows how these moments are natural, and thus not worth being afraid of. In the end, her assertion that God does not leave us comfortless is the ultimate reason to "let evening come."

Unknown said...

I know you posted this several years ago, but I still wanted to leave my comment. Thank you for the analysis of this beautiful poem. My son had to memorize a poem and recite it in front of his class. This is the poem he selected. When I read it the first time, I just thought it was about evening approaching. He said, "No, Mom, it's about death." He takes AP Lit and Comp and is analyzing literature constantly. So I read it again and understood what he was referring to. I wanted further analysis and then found your blog. I am at crossroads in life (sons going off to college soon and parents aging) and this really touches me deeply. Thank you again.

Anonymous said...