Having It Out with Isolation
Jennifer Moore on Jane Kenyon's melancholy and the search for "ordinary contentment" in a time of separation.
I could never name my existence. How moments of joy could be tempered with despondency. How shortened steps in a crowded room translated into shortened breath. How a sixteen-year-old boyfriend, confounded, could ask me where I went, though I had been sitting there the whole time. When I read Jane Kenyon’s poem“Having It Out with Melancholy” for the first time at age seventeen, something within me was named.
Melancholy, however, as Kenyon explains, is a mercurial adversary, rife with insurmountable tricks of sorrow, and pacific gifts of genuine joy. But it is the isolation from others that is the most damaging. For years, I have pulled the poem over me like a weighted blanket and micro-dosed myself with Kenyon’s imagery of our shared anxieties, fears, and weary longing for peace. During this pandemic, lines from it have often whispered to me, consoling and assuring me that pain means life.
Isolation has become a shared human experience. We are together in our separation. Some of us are deep within ourselves and have often been, and some of us are sheltered in our homes, ready to emerge from seclusion for our first time. We are suspicious, cautious.
Kenyon, a lifelong sufferer of anxiety and depression, often lived the solitude, and seemingly speaks of our hesitant hope in vaccinations and each other:
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.
We are partakers of the same weary hope and paranoia. What will come? How long can we endure? “Having It Out with Melancholy” gives us the encouragement that we can endure indefinitely until, like Kenyon, we are reunited and “overcome//by ordinary contentment.” Greeting with a kiss, trying on the dress, a clear, unambiguous ending like a “bright unequivocal eye.”
Jennifer Moore is a writer living in Steubenville, Ohio with her husband and three precocious daughters.
Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was an American poet whose late work examined depression. She served as New Hampshire’s poet laureate and won the 1994 Voelcker Award for Poetry.