Having It Out with Melancholy: Amanda Palmer Reads Jane Kenyon’s Stunning Poem About Life With and After Depression
“What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”
By Maria Popova
“The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” William Styron wrote in what remains the most gripping account of living with depression. As time pools that gray drizzle into an ocean of anguish, we begin to lose sight of the other shore — but there is, always, an other shore.
A century after Tchaikovsky contemplated finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, the poet Jane Kenyon (May 23, 1947–April 22, 1995) captured with exquisite elegance of insight life with and after depression in a stunning poem titled “Having It Out with Melancholy,” found in Constance (public library) — the final poetry collection published in Kenyon’s unreasonably brief lifetime.
I asked my largehearted friend and fellow poetry-lover Amanda Palmer — who has read many poems for me in the past — to record a reading of Kenyon’s masterpiece, which she did generously, beautifully, and with the subtle solidarity of the piano’s native melancholy. Special thanks to audio engineer James Bridges.
HAVING IT OUT WITH MELANCHOLY
by Jane Kenyon
If many remedies are prescribed
for an illness, you may be certain
that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV
The Cherry Orchard
1 FROM THE NURSERY
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.
3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND
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.
5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
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.
6 IN AND OUT
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
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.
9 WOOD THRUSH
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.
Complement with Kenyon’s towering wisdom on life, May Sarton on the cure for despair, Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression, and Galway Kinnell’s lifeline of a poem for a friend contemplating suicide, then revisit Amanda’s arresting readings of “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska.
Amanda’s work, like my own, is supported by donations. Please consider joining me in supporting her on Patreon so that she can continue to have breathing room for such spontaneous, generous, and life-giving collaborations.
Published September 27, 2017