by Scott Owens
THE JANE POEMS
by Ronald Moran
Clemson University Digital Press (2011)
Simply put, this is a beautiful book! Anyone who has ever loved someone and lost them, anyone who has known love or loss, anyone who loves memorable, well-crafted, emotionally powerful poetry, will love this book, which reminds us of the vital lesson Galway Kinnell gave us thirty years ago in his best poem, “Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight:”
as you stand
at this end of the bridge which arcs,
from love, you think, into enduring love,
learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come – to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss
which tells you, here,
here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.
The still undanced cadence of vanishing.
These poems begin at the beginning of the speaker’s relationship with the title character, Moran’s late wife, Jane. In “The Courtship,” Moran charmingly tells us how he, as a young man, took off his tee shirt and mowed “the same // patch of lawn over and over” “on a chance she’d be riding // in a car down the hill that day”, “an offering of my unrehearsed // goods in early summer.” He follows this with poems of tender intimacy that show the relationship between the speaker and Jane growing over the years. In “Double Passage in Mid-Life,” he says to Jane, “I turn to fit the contour of your life.” In “Weddings,” he comments, “No surprise that we’re // getting into each other’s / dreams.” And in “Room by Room,” he fashions a wonderful analogy for how a marriage is constructed: “Room by room we are taming / this house built sideways / and close to a narrow street.” In poem after poem, Moran conveys the depth of this relationship through fresh, effective and vital imagery.
The second section of poems tells the story of how the speaker spent the last years of his 50-year relationship with Jane living with her illness and with all the feelings commensurate with such experience: stubborn optimism, fear, dread, sorrow, uncertainty. We first discover the illness along with the speaker in “Mirrors,” where he sits in the doctor’s waiting room trying to “flash” his “new smile” as if he “could // do something to face up to this . . . news now slowly coming to light / in pictures at the end of the hall.” Moran takes us through the various stages of emotion one faced with the illness of a loved one will inevitably experience. In “Tic Tacs,” he muses, “What will I do / if your heart closes up / like a sundrop after dark?” In “Jane” and “Foreplay” he answers the more important question of what he must do now, expressing empathy for Jane and accepting the responsibility of caring for her. At several points in this book, Moran thanks Jane for “saving his life.” In “The Breakdown” we see one of those points when we hear Jane helping him learn what to make of their experience with illness:
as we held
each other, I said “What am I going to do
when you die?”
and she responded, as if she would never die,
and that, hey,
we still had each other, and let’s make the best
of it now.
The emotional process the speaker goes through in accepting inevitable loss as well as the responsibility of caring for another and learning to make the most of every experience we have culminates in “A Blessing,” perhaps the book’s most powerful poem:
I cup her hand leisurely in mine, closing
it slowly, feeling her tremors until my hand
calms hers, and I whisper, “Time to sleep”;
and as she does, I count interludes between
breaths, longer than ever before but steady,
then release her, knowing how blessed I am.
The final section of poems deals with Jane’s death and the speaker’s life afterwards. The first poem in the section, “Lines of Demarcation,” describes the speaker’s discovery of Jane shortly after her passing. It is one of the most powerful poems I have ever read:
she was on her back, her mouth
as before, but her thin and bruised body
did not twitch.
She was still, like a figure in a photograph,
for breath as when I left her room.
I tried to close
her right eye, barely open, but it would not
The nurse said, “Do you want a few minutes
alone with her?”
I said I’m OK, which I was not, but I only knew
how much I was not OK and never would be
The remaining poems take the reader through a second process: the process of grieving, remembering, and coming to terms with being alone. The poems describe the journey with remarkable honesty, admitting all the complexity, depth, and difficulty of grief without trivializing it with oversimplified platitudes, concluding only with a measured joy that might best be called, appreciation:
I keep thinking of E.M. Forster’s “Only connect,”
and all I want
is to rerun my life with Jane, beginning in June, where
an oak in Walnut Hill Park, we both asked, “Can it work?”
Yes, it did.
Ultimately, this book about love and loss becomes a celebration and an expression of gratitude. No more stirring tribute to the power of another in our life, to a relationship, to love, has been written. Nor has there been anything more helpful for any who face the prospect of living with a loved one’s dying. Moran has achieved those most poetic of ambitions, catharsis and relevance, transforming his life into art that is transformative for the rest of us.