A P R I L 1 9 9 9
WOMAN, WHY ARE YOU WEEPING?by Jane Kenyon
Hear Donald Hall read Jane Kenyon's poem (in RealAudio).
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Also by Jane Kenyon:
Two Poems: Drawing From the Past and Surprise (1996)
Man Eating (1994)
An Audible Anthology
"Because," she replied, "they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."
Returned from long travel, I sit
in the familiar, sun-streaked pew, waiting
for the bread and wine of holy Communion.
The old comfort does not rise in me, only
apathy and bafflement.
India, with her ceaseless
bells and fire, her crows calling stridently
all night; India with her sandalwood
smoke, and graceful gods, many-headed and many-
armed, has taken away the one who blessed
and kept me.
The thing is done, as surely
as if my luggage had been stolen from the train.
Men and women with faces as calm as lakes at dusk
have taken away my Lord, and I don't know
where to find him.
What is Brahman? I don't know Brahman.
I don't know saccidandana, the bliss
of the absolute and unknowable.
I only know that I have lost the Lord
in whose image I was made.
Whom shall I thank for this pear,
sweet and white? Food is God, prasadam,
God's mercy. But who is this God?
The one who is not this, not that?
The absurdity of all religious forms
breaks over me, as the absurdity of language
made me feel faint the day I heard friends
giving commands to their neighbor's dog
in Spanish.... At first I laughed,
but then I became frightened.
They have taken away my Lord, a person
whose life I held inside me. I saw him
heal, and teach, and eat among sinners.
I saw him break the sabbath to make a higher
sabbath. I saw him lose his temper.
I knew his anguish when he called, "I thirst!,"
and received vinegar to drink. The Bible
does not say it, but I am sure he turned
his head away. Not long after he cried, "My God,
my God, why have you forsaken me?,"
I watched him reveal himself risen
to Magdalene with a single word: "Mary!"
It was my habit to speak to him. His goodness
perfumed my life. I loved the Lord, he heard
my cry, and he loved me as his own.
A man sleeps on the pavement, on a raffia mat --
the only thing that has not been stolen from him.
This stranger who loves what cannot be understood
has put out my light with his calm face.
Shall the fire answer my fears and vapors?
The fire cares nothing for my illness,
nor does Brahma, the creator, nor Shiva who sees
evil with his terrible third eye; Vishnu,
the protector, does not protect me.
I've brought home the smell of the streets
in the folds of soft, bright cotton garments.
When I iron them the steam brings back
the complex odors that rise from the gutters,
of tuberoses, urine, dust, joss, and death.
On a curb in Allahabad the family gathers
under a dusty tree, a few quilts hung
between light posts and a wattle fence
for privacy. Eleven sit or lie around the fire
while a woman of sixty stirs a huge pot.
Rice cooks in a narrow-necked crock
on the embers. A small dog, with patches of bald,
red skin on his back, lies on the corner
of the piece of canvas that serves as flooring.
Looking at them I lose my place.
I don't know why I was born, or why
I live in a house in New England, or why I am
a visitor with heavy luggage giving lectures
for the State Department. Why am I not
tap-tapping with my fingernail
on the rolled-up window of a white government car,
a baby in my arms, drugged to look feverish?
Rajiv did not weep. He did not cover
his face with his hands when we rowed past
the dead body of a newborn nudging the grassy
banks at Benares -- close by a snake
rearing up, and a cast-off garland of flowers.
He explained. When a family are too poor
to cremate their dead, they bring the body
here, and slip it into the waters of the Ganges
and Yamuna Rivers.
Perhaps the child was dead
at birth; perhaps it had the misfortune
to be born a girl. The mother may have walked
two days with her baby's body to this place
where Gandhi's ashes once struck the waves
with a sound like gravel being scuffed
over the edge of a bridge.
"What shall we do about this?" I asked
my God, who even then was leaving me. The reply
was scorching wind, lapping of water, pull
of the black oarsmen on the oars....
Jane Kenyon died in 1995. Her poem in this issue of The Atlantic will conclude A Hundred White Daffodils, a collection of her prose, to be published this fall.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Woman, Why Are You Weeping?; Volume 283, No. 4; page 75.