Quick Takes on Poems that’ve Shaken Me: Jane Kenyon’s “The Thimble”

Kenyon died young, at the age of 47. She left behind, among other things, her husband, poet Donald Hall, and five (or six) books of poetry and translation. I’ve begun exploring her life and her relationship to Hall through his later poems and memoirs on his grief at her loss and Kenyon’s own poems. “The Thimble” is among her earliest published poems, part of the first section of From Room to Room, her first book.

It’s brief, composed of two six-line stanzas. The poem’s narrative covers the speaker’s discovery of a thimble on the floor of her woodshed. I died when I encountered a single image, conveyed through the final two lines of the first stanza, of the thimble’s ovular opening. Usually rounded, the ovular shape of the thimble’s opening is an anomaly that give the speaker occasion to posit two possible reasons it might have taken such shape: it’d been compressed by the maple logs stacked in the shed until recently, or else it had been shaped by its wearer to better conform to the tip of the thumb.

I thought of a thimble’s purpose — to keep sewing needles from breaking the skin on the pad of the thumb. I thought of all the hundreds of ways we take the objects of this world, especially the mass-produced tools of certain trades — sewing, cooking, writing, etc. — and bend them to better suit our own purposes. I was floored to consider the ways such objects, if examined closely, reveal their owners. Consider how this thimble the speaker finds, if indeed it had been crushed to conform to the shape of the wearer’s thumb, reveals the wearer’s ingenuity, intelligence, resourcefulness. Sad to think of such a person being gone from the world. We lose the skill of her (or his) sewing, the sharpness of her (his) mind. We lose the world she (he) was part of, too, in a way, insofar as that world had been brought into being through her (his) actions. That thimble represents a piece of that world long-gone, a piece which allows Kenyon’s speaker the chance to touch it, hold it in her mind, consider it in relation to the way its residue shapes parts of her own existence.

The poem presents us a way of thinking about thimbles we’ve encountered, thimbles we’ve likely made. It gave me license to re-envision a poem of my own I’ve been struggling with which toys with an image of a set of car keys left behind by the previous owners of the home my wife and I purchased several years ago. A circular-headed car or door lock key connected with stories I’d heard from neighbors about the woman of the house letting her adult son use the garage to work on his cars. I understood the long wooden slats screwed to the ceiling of the garage as having once served as the mounts for long florescent-tube lights bright enough to illuminate the recesses of complex high-performance engine blocks. Perhaps the car had been sold, and that’s why the key had been left hanging on a screw screwed to a piece of pegboard mounted to the garage wall beside the door. Perhaps the young man had been forgetful, or else his mother had been. Perhaps the key belonged not to a car but to the old doors, taken off and replaced with new by the man who’d bought and flipped our house after the woman had fallen off the stoop, hit her head, and died of a brain hemorrhage several hours later at the local hospital.