In 1975, Jane Kenyon encouraged her husband Donald Hall to leave his professorship at the University of Michigan and move to Eagle Pond, his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm where he had spent childhood summers haying, gathering eggs, and tromping through the woods. Hall had helped make Ann Arbor a literary hub, but in his poems he often returned to Eagle Pond. Consider “Mount Kearsarge,” a poem of intense, elegiac longing. Hall recalls the “blue mountain” he watched “from the porch of the farmhouse” in his youth. He is now haunted by this “Ghost” whose visage shifts with the seasons, the weather, the play of light. The poem ends with Hall’s prediction that he would “not walk on this porch” when he was old. In urging Hall to return home, Kenyon gave him a great gift: she proved his prediction wrong.
Kenyon grew up on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, so returning to her husband’s home meant leaving hers. A former student of Hall’s, she too was a poet, and she would achieve international prominence at Eagle Pond. It is clear from poems, interviews, and memoirs that Kenyon and Hall were happy together at the old farm. But Kenyon’s arrival in the New Hampshire countryside, into a house filled with Hall’s ancestral relics, was not without its challenges. This is a central concern of her first collection, From Room to Room, which was published in 1978. In “Here” she writes:
You always belonged here.
You were theirs, certain as a rock.
I’m the one who worries
if I fit in with the furniture
and the landscape.
In the title poem, she writes: “I move from room to room, / a little dazed, like the fly. / I watch it / bump against each window.” “Two Days Alone” concludes, “Maybe / I don’t belong here. / Nothing tells me that I don’t.” But over the course of the collection, Eagle Pond starts to become her home too. She begins to find her place among the generations, especially the generations of women, who had lived there. She finds a thimble in the woodshed, “a long gray hair” while scrubbing floors, and begins to feel her life “added to theirs.”
Kenyon also made Eagle Pond her home by planting peonies. She moved some of the hostas from around the porch where Hall watched Mount Kearsarge as a boy. In their place she planted “Festiva Maxima,” a variety of white peony with crimson accents. In a 1991 essay for Yankee Magazine, Kenyon extols the beauty of the peony, a flower so top-heavy when in bloom that it can topple over: “These are not Protestant-work-ethic flowers. They loll about in gorgeousness; they live for art; they believe in excess. They are not quite decent, to tell the truth. Neighbors and strangers slow their cars to gawk.” Kenyon’s poem “Peonies at Dusk” serves as a companion to this essay. In it, “White peonies blooming along the porch / send out light / while the rest of the yard grows dim.” Like many of her poems, this one is subtle, spare, concentrated. Wendell Berry, Kenyon and Hall’s close friend, once wrote that in her poems “the stuff of life in this world…become[s] somehow numinous and resonant—extraordinary.” Here Kenyon uses the peony to remind us of the resplendence of the world, its aesthetic excess, the way that certain forms seem to radiate light.