The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon by Donald Hall. Houghton Mifflin, 2005; 258 pages; $23.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: Donald Hall's celebrated book of poems Without was written for his wife, Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995. Hall returns to this powerful territory in The Best Day the Worst Day, a work of prose that is equally "a work of art, love, and generous genius" (Liz Rosenberg, Boston Globe). Jane Kenyon was 19 years younger than Donald Hall and a student poet at the University of Michigan when they met. Hall was her teacher. The Best Day the Worst Day is an intimate account of their 23-year marriage, nearly all of it spent in New Hampshire at Eagle Pond Farm -- of their shared rituals of writing, close attention to pets and gardening, and love in the afternoon. Hall joyfully records Jane's growing power as a poet and the couple's careful accommodations toward each other as writers. This portrait of the inner moods of "the best marriage I know about," as Hall has written, is laid against the stark medical emergency of Jane's leukemia, which ended her life in 15 months. Hall shares with readers -- as if we were one of the grieving neighbors, friends, and relatives -- the daily ordeal of Jane's dying, through heartbreaking and generous storytelling.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: "Jane Kenyon died of leukemia at 7:57 in the morning, April 22, 1995" is the first sentence of this unsparing and beautifully structured memoir. She was only 47, and the struggle was harrowing... Alternating with the meticulous account of the progress of Kenyon's disease are warm, joyful chapters as Hall recalls their time together.... Hall wrote about Kenyon's illness and death in his 1998 book of poems, Without, but this heartfelt memoir should reach people who seldom read poetry and could be a natural for reading groups.
From The Hartford Courant: Hall writes in loving detail of Kenyon's final months. In alternating chapters, Hall provides clinical details of her barbaric chemotherapies followed by descriptions of the simpler joys of their workaday world, the world they once took for granted and longed to rejoin.
From New York Observer: I don't think I've ever read a book that so fully describes the way illness can take all other air out of the room. Yet this book is not depressed or simply sad. Of course it's tragic, but Mr. Hall knows that tragedy hits everyone one way or the other. And he's most himself, I think, imagining others. In Seattle, in the hell -- the promising hell -- of bone-marrow transplant, he hears the unreachable screams of children in the same state. Yet he knows children have a much better chance of recovery than Jane does. But crying is in order, and sometimes joy gets washed away by tears quicker than pain: I defy anyone to read aloud -- without collapsing -- the passage on their dog's ecstasy when they come back in remission from Seattle.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Donald Hall, born in 1928 in New Haven, Connecticut, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry for The One Day (1989), the Lenore Marshall Award for The Happy Man (1987), the 1990 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America for Old and New Poems (1990), and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in New Hampshire.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the morning we spoke, Mr. Hall was at home in his New Hampshire farm. His telephone line hissed and buzzed. Some of his sentences disappeared entirely. I repeatedly interrupted our conversation, saying, "I can barely hear you. Could you say that again?" When we began our talk, however, I said that before I dialed his number I had reread some of his late wife's poems."
"I think more and more people are reading her," he said. He added that more wonderful women poets were being published. He cited Jane Hirshfield as one of the best. "Isn't she good?" he said, enthusiastically. "I think she's a wonderful poet. She never knew my Jane, unfortunately."
I came away feeling that Mr. Hall's memoir ended being as much about the course of Jane Kenyon's suffering as about the compassion and patience that her suffering taught Mr. Hall.
He agreed. "Yes. It came quickly. But it just took all of me, every bit of me. I've heard stories of many people, more men than women, who just can't supply it. Being around the negative, being around suffering, probable death. They just have run away.
One time out in Seattle, one of the social workers said, 'Why don't you take a little holiday? Go down to San Francisco for a few days.' I was exhausted but I just couldn't imagine such a thing. When she was in the hospital, I was prepared to get there about 6 a.m. I really hurried to get up and get dressed and get there and be with her. I couldn't do much for her. But I had to be there. I wondered sometimes if my constant presence wasn't yet another burden. But I didn't feel as though I had a choice but to be there."
"In today's medical world you need to be there just to keep an eye on what is being given the patient."
"And to interpret, yes, and to remember what Jane couldn't remember. That was important. Some of the doctors were amusing about me; they started to tag me 'Dr. Hall.' Our principle oncologist out in Seattle gave me her stethoscope that she'd received as a graduating senior from medical school.
"I was very touched that she came to the funeral. I've seen her several times since. I've been to Seattle twice and she came to visit me here once. And the principle New Hampshire oncologist, we see each other fairly often. I go up to that hospital for one reason or another to get some exams myself. But there's also a friend who lives nearby whom I'm driving up for chemo now and I will always wander around the hospital. I'm very fond of all the people that took care of Jane. We had terrific help."