Among the Thirty Thousand Days: An Appreciation of Donald Hall

Written by

Louis Begley
Contributor Page

Year

2006
Printer-friendly version

"Silent, upon a peak in Darien..." The words crowded into my mind insistently as I read Donald Hall's Selected Poems. This new volume is not, of course, the occasion for my first encounter with Hall's work. I have been reading him for years. He and I are friends. I have known him since the fall of 1950, when I was a freshman newly elected to the Harvard Advocate. Hall was a senior, and the magazine's outgoing president. All of us knew that he would grow to be a famous man; the promise has been kept over the succeeding years. Over the years it has become abundantly clear that Hall—magnificently productive and versatile— is one of the best poets writing in English since World War II.

Timor mortis, an ever-present consciousness of mortality, has pervaded Hall’s work from the start. Already in “My Son My Executioner,” one of his earliest published poems, he apostrophized

Sweet death, small son, our instrument
     Of immortality,
Your cries and hungers document
     Our bodily decay.

The death of his father at the age of fifty-two, days after the publication of Hall’s first book of poems, Exiles and Marriages, so that the father had actually held the book in his hand, marked Hall profoundly. The father’s absence fills the superb and hushed “Christmas Eve in Whitneyville”:

The lights go out and it is Christmas Day.
The stones are white, the grass is black and deep.
I will go back and leave you here to stay
Where the dark houses darken into sleep.

The dead father would haunt Hall’s later poems. “White Apples” (from which the title of the Selected Poems is drawn) is an elegy for him. It begins:

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear

The circumstances of Hall’s life during the last sixteen years—struggle with his own metastasizing cancer in 1989 and 1993 and the death in 1995, after fifteen months of harrowing and excruciatingly painful cancer therapy, of his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon—have led him into a netherworld the awestruck reader enters reluctantly and on tiptoe, and furnish the devastating subject of what may be his finest work, a Jane Kenyon cycle comprising, in the Selected Poems, the poems grouped under All, Letters without Addresses, and Throwing Away. I quote, almost at random, the first, sixth, and final stanzas of “Without,” a laconic and scary factual report from the killing fields:

we lived in a small island stone nation
without color under gray clouds and wind
distant the unlimited ocean acute
lymphoblastic leukemia without seagulls
or palm trees without vegetation
or animal life only barnacles and lead

                 ...

vincristine ara-c cytoxan vp-16
loss of memory loss of language losses
pneumocystis carinii pneumonia bactrim
foaming unmitigated sea without sea
delirium whipmarks of petechiae
multiple blisters of herpes zoster
and how are you doing today I am doing

                 ...

the sea unrelenting wave gray the sea
flotsam without islands broken crates
block after block the same house the mall
no cathedral no hobo jungle the same women
and men they long to drink hayfields no
without dog or semicolon or village square
without monkey or lily without garlic

Premonitions of mortality that run through it notwithstanding, an earlier poem, “To Build a House,” published in 1988 shortly before the cancers struck, celebrates joyously Hall’s and Kenyon’s move to New Hampshire, and the commencement of a new life:

Here, among the thirty thousand days of a long life,
a single day stands still: The sun shines, it is raining;
we sleep we make love, we plant a tree, we walk up and down
eating lunch: The day waits at the center when I reached out
to touch the face in the mirror, and never
touched glass, touched neither cheekbone nor eyelid,
touched galaxies instead and the void they hung on.
The one day extended from that moment, unrolling
continuous as the broad moon on water, or as motions of rain
that journey a million times through air to water.

“Kill the Day,” included in Throwing Away, was written after the fall; Kenyon was already dead. “To Build a House” and “Kill the Day” are identical in form: lines of fourteen syllables that avoid the iambic, and stanzas of ten lines. “Kill the Day” was surely intended to contradict the earlier poem. However, as if some dam choking up sorrow had been breached at last, in the penultimate stanza Hall makes derision yield to tenderness and longing:

Each day identified itself as a passage to elsewhere,
which was a passage to elsewhere and elsewhere.
What did she look like now? Dried and slackening maybe.
Do the worms eat her? He supposed that they ate her.
Now he dreamed again of her thick and lavish hair,
of her lush body wetting and loosening beside him.
He remembered ordinary fucking that shone like the sun
in their household solar system, brighter than Jesus,
than poetry, than their orchard under the mountain –
the crossing place of bodies that regarded each other.

In the sexual act we thumb our nose at death. Hall’s daring and virtuosity as a writer of erotic verse is on display in the defiant short lyrics included in the Jane Kenyon cycle. They are not about Kenyon, which magnifies their effect. Thus “Conversation’s Afterplay”:

     At dinner our first night
I looked at you, your bright green eyes,
     In candlelight.
We laughed and told the hundred stories,
Kissed, and caressed, and went to bed.
      “Shh, shh,” you said,
“I want to put my legs around your head”
                 Green eyes, green.

In ironically titled “Affirmation,” which is the last poem in Throwing Away and therefore concludes the cycle, a hardboiled Hall sums it all up:

If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces that she is temporary
is temporary.
                 ...

Let us stifle under the mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

There are times when Hall’s no-holds-barred eroticism is tempered by great sweetness, as in “Secrets,” included in Recent Poems:

You sang show tunes sitting above me, clicking your fingers,
swaying your shadowy torso. We attended to each other
in a sensuous dazzle as global as suffering
until gradual gathering spilled like water over the stone dam
and we soared level across the long-lived lake.

and anxiety combines with cautious hope:

It is half a year since we slept beside each other all night.
I wake hollow as a thighbone with its marrow picked out.
In falling snow, a crow pecks under the empty birdfeeder.
                 *
When the house lights go out in wind and heavy snow,
the afternoon already black, I lie frightened in darkness
on the unsheeted bed. No one comes to my door.
Old age concludes in making wills and trusts and inventories,
in knees that buckle going downstairs. Wretched in airless
solitude, I want to call you,
                 but if you hear my voice
you will unplug your telephone and lie awake until morning.
                 *
I remember you striding toward me, hands in jean pockets,
each step decisive, smiling as you knew that the cool
air kept a secret, but might be cajoled into revealing it.

One of the many wonders of Hall’s poems is their lucidity. Hall doesn’t take refuge in being obscure; he has no need to. From early lyrics like “Mt. Kearsarge” and long poems like the splendid “Kicking the Leaves” and “Eating the Pig,” through The One Day, the delightful Horatian high jinks of The Museum of Clear Ideas, and Extra Innings (when cancers had already invaded), Hall has spoken his mind coherently, all the while, like an old-time fiddler, accompanying the words that carry his meaning with those mysterious melodies without which there is no great poetry.

     The time is not remote, when I
Must by the Course of Nature dye:
When I foresee my special Friends
Will try to find their private Ends,
Tho’ it is hardly understood
Which way my Death can do them good...

To praise, as I have done, Hall’s lucidity is not to suggest that he writes like Swift, whose lines from Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift I have just quoted, although at times, because he is a master of the pastiche and allusion, one might almost think that he does. See, for instance, “Tubes” in The Height and Heart of Desire:

“Up, down, good, bad,” said
the man with tubes
up his nose, “there’s lots
of variety...
However, notions
of Balance between
extremes of fortune
Are stupid – or at
best unobservant.
He watched as the nurse
fed pellets into
the green nozzle that
stuck from his side. “mm,”
said the man. “Good. Yum.
(Next time more basil...)

or the wonderfully clever poems in The Museum of Clear Ideas. “Tubes” and Horsecollar Hall’s Odes are indeed first-rate poetry—as are so many of Swift’s and Alexander Pope’s poems—because of the cohabitation in them of unfailing respect for form with the clarity of the poet’s ideas and wit. However, the implacable lucidity of a poem as despairing and dense as “Without,” from which I have quoted above, is the greater marvel, one achieved without the aid of syntax or punctuation; it is as if “Guernica” had been painted by a pointillist.

Not all of Hall’s country lies beyond the river Styx. He is of New Hampshire, and more specifically the house on Eagle Pond, where already as a boy he wanted to grow old. The mythic region he has created at the foot of Ragged Mountain and Mt. Kearsarge is peopled by ghosts of his grandfather, Wesley Wells, his grandmother, and countless cousins. Other cousins are still alive; with various neighbors they drive by to offer solace and attend funerals. Gus the retriever mourns his mistress. He also fetches for Hall, and startles a pair of lovers at the cemetery’s edge, thus inspiring the very recent “Tennis Ball.” Iconic objects perdure in this region: Hall’s blue chair, the Glendale stove, the painted bed. He slices onion to put between slices of store-bought bread, brews coffee, watches the Red Sox, and reads the Boston Globe.

Farm animals occupy a special place in Hall’s oeuvre. In “Great Day in the Cows’ House,” Holsteins—

 

                 these wallowing
big-eyed calf-makers bone-rafters for leather,
awkward arks, cud-chewing lethargic mooers
roll their enormous heads, trot, gallop, bounce,
cavort, stretch and bellow—
as if everything heavy and cold vanished at once
and cow spirits floated
weightless as clouds in the great day’s windy April.

 

Horses do as well. “Names of Horses” is a grand elegy for “Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost” and their seasonal labor on Hall’s grandfather’s farm until

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
Led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,
and laid the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave.

“Great Day in the Cows’ House” is surely the only poem in the language in which a cow’s moo takes up an entire decasyllabic line. One doesn’t know, reading the animal poems, whether to wonder more at Hall’s command of the rich specific vocabulary of husbandry or his empathy.

Negative capability, a virtuoso’s verbal agility, and power of intellect: Hall possesses these qualities to the highest degree. The line traced over the six decades represented by the Selected Poems is triumphantly ascendant. Aided by Hall’s steady workman-like commitment to his craft and uncommon erudition, they have also enabled him in countless essays (including in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets) to write incisively and wisely about other poets and the art of poetry. I do not believe that Hall has published novels, or that plays of his have been performed on or off Broadway. But he has written beguiling and fully achieved short stories (most recently collected in Temple Willow), and his Best Day Worst Day, an unsparing account of Jane Kenyon’s illness and death set down in prose, establishes him as a memorialist of the first order. One is impatient for the day when it will be possible to read his autobiography.