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Donald Hall died. In the Times, he got the Great Man obit. He earned it.
It is easy to say that Donald Hall is the successor to Robert Frost. His family had a farm in New Hampshire, he met Frost when he was young and impressionable, and many of his poems are set in the world of farmers– gruff men, in a harsh landscape. Theirs is a hard life, but then, Hall seems to say, in poem after poem, so is all life.
“Like an old man,” he writes, “whatever I touch I turn/to the story of death.”
And, again, “Birth is the fear of death.”
At that point, I reached for a pencil; I could see that Hall’s lines have the quotable appeal of smart, direct speech — the speech of a crusty, independent thinker. Like this: “In America, the past exists/in the library.”
The past and the process of aging are Hall’s continuing subjects, and he’s anything but “poetic” in the way he deals with them. Here’s “The Young Watch Us,” an early poem:
The young girls look up
as we walk past the line at the movie,
and go back to examining their fingernails.
Their boyfriends are combing their hair,
and chew gum
as if they meant to insult us.
Today we made love all day.
I look at you. You are smiling on the sidewalk,
dear wrinkled face.
So much for the expected conclusion: envy of the young. But surprise is what you get time after time in these poems. When men on airplanes ask Hall, “What are you in?” he replies that he’s “in” poetry and goes onto tell us about the lunchtime reading he gives to their wives at the “Women’s Goodness Club.” After, he thinks of the children of those men and women: “Will you ever be old and dumb, like your creepy parents? Not you, not you, not you, not you, not you, not you.”
The surprise, of course, is that these poems go down like thin white wine (you know, those German wines that are easy to drink as water but pack a kick you don’t expect). This is a man who reads the obituaries in the Boston Globe “for the mean age.” And there he spots a squib about Emily Farr, dead after a long illness in Oregon. He writes:
Once in an old house we talked for an hour, while a coal fire
brightened in November twilight and wavered
our shadows high on the wall
until our eyes fixed on each other. Thirty years ago.
Those last three words are, for me, breathtaking. But then, I’m not a kid, reading poetry for clues about what’s next. I, too, can remember women from three decades ago, and the impression I had of them, and the choices we made. Some of them are now gone. Reading those lines, of course, I wonder. but mostly I marvel.
The death of loved ones is the singular subject of many poems. In 1972, while teaching at the University of Michigan, he married Jane Kenyon, one of his students, 19 years his junior, A few years later, he quit teaching and they moved to his family’s farm in New Hampshire. He endured her depressions, adored her mind and libido; they were a great match. In 1989, Hall was diagnosed with colon cancer, which metastasized to his liver. Although he went into remission, he had no illusions that he would live long. So it was, as you may imagine, quite the stunner when Jane died. He wrote often about his wife. My favorite is a haiku:
You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.
In a poem, Hall defines what life demands: “Work, love, build a house, and die. But build a house.”
Has he ever.
Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.
We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.
Previously published on The Head Butler.
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