It doesn’t matter what I’m doing or what time of day or night it is, when I pick up this collection, it’s the only one I read from first page to last. Published in 1998, Without traces the illness and death from leukemia of Hall’s wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in an arc of elegiac and starkly beautiful language. Hall, the esteemed poet, writer, critic and 2006 U.S. poet Laureate, first met Kenyon when she was his student at the University of Michigan, and the two were married in 1972. It was a proverbial May-December marriage, lived out nearly twenty years on his grandparents’ Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmont, New Hampshire. Then, in 1989, when Hall was in his early sixties, he discovered he had colon cancer (“I was the one who was supposed to die first,” he wrote). Three years later it metastasized to his liver. Yet after surgery and chemotherapy, Hall’s cancer went into remission, but two years later, in a tragic turn, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia. “Without,” as the book’s cover describes, is both a testament and a lament to the marriage, Kenyon’s illness, and Hall’s life after her death.
I read these poems to better understand both life and art: to remember that time is short, that living is important, and that what might seem like fleeting images are often the most enduring, shattering contact we have with life.
This first Advent alone
I feed the small birds of snow
black-oil sunflower seed
as you used to do. Every day
I stand trembling with joy
to watch them: Fat mourning doves
compete with red squirrels
for spill from rampaging nuthatches
with rusty breasts
and black-and-white face masks.
I cherish the gathered nation
of chickadees, flashy
with immaculate white vests,
with tidy dark bibs and feet,
spinning and whirling down
from the old maple, feather
ounces of hunger, muscle, and bliss.
—from “Letter at Christmas,” by Donald Hall