This book is the one of the few that, when I pick it up, I read from first page to last—no matter what I was doing before, or what time of day or night. In twenty poems, Donald Hall traces the illness and death of Hall’s wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995. 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, Ann Arbor, and in 1972, they married. Theirs was what was called then a May-December marriage, and the couple lived nearly twenty years on Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmont, New Hampshire, which originally belonged to Hall’s grandparents. 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). 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 a testament to the marriage, a document of Kenyon’s illness, and a chronicle of Hall’s life after her death. I read these poems to better understand life and art: to remember that time is short, that living is important, and that in remembering a life, love is the most enduring and heart-shattering lens.
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
Read Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Having it Out with Melancholy,” at poets.org