Donald Hall is a poet whose life and work I have written about many times before. His new memoir, Unpacking the Boxes, was reviewed by Peter Stevenson in the New York Times on Sunday.
This book follows his poignant memoir about life with poet Jane Kenyon, The Best Day the Worst Day, as well as a volume of poems dedicated to her memory, Without. The narrative that is still so present in his voice focuses on how “a 23-year marriage and idyllic life in his family’s ancestral New Hampshire farmhouse, Eagle Pond Farm — where mornings meant writing poetry in separate rooms, afternoons a romp in bed and then reading aloud Keats, Wordsworth, the Bible and Henry James — came to a thundering end with her death from leukemia at the age of 47. It is a mark of the honesty of Hall’s work — the generous refusal to look away — that in his new book, he tells us he bought condoms two weeks after she died,”
Lust is grief
that has turned over in bed
to look the other way.
(From the poem, “Ardor”)
I found Stevenson’s review engaging, particularly the significance he makes of a single comma’s omission in Hall’s phrase, “In childhood nothing happens.” And what frailty and undefendedness is highlighted by what Hall wrote about his experience of having a stroke: “It was a morning like a green field, and I felt good — attended to by shepherds who spoke softly to each other and to me.”
This life has been (and continues to be) an extraordinary one.
“In childhood nothing happened.” So Donald Hall writes in his enchanting memoir, and what’s admirable about that sentence is not just the pleasure in coming across such a cheeky volley in the opening pages of an account of a life in our post-Freudian age, but the choice Hall made not to insert a comma between “childhood” and “nothing.” A comma — “In childhood, nothing happened” — would have insisted on a dramatic pause that the reader would be expected to applaud politely, nodding at the poet’s foreshadowing that clearly something did happen and it must have been simply stupendous, and here we go. But Hall means what he says, repeating the phrase “Nothing happened” twice, like a chorus or incantation, on the following page.
What he’s getting at, of course, is that “nothing” is a perfectly appropriate way to describe how the unfolding of life — particularly a child’s life — can feel. He is hinting at that uncanny sensation one can have as a child when something vividly alive and unfathomable, which defies description, is very much “happening.” (The parent asks the child what she did today. “Oh, nothing.”) The fact that Hall can evoke the fused aliveness and alienation of such “nothing happenings” is one reason for his success as a poet…
At 80, Hall now lives in “the thin air of antiquity’s planet.” He recently endured a stroke that led to an early-morning endarterectomy to clear a carotid artery. “It was a morning like a green field,” he writes, “and I felt good — attended to by shepherds who spoke softly to each other and to me.”