This book is the only one that when picked up, is read from first page to last—no matter what I was doing before, or what time of day or night. In twenty poems, the poet Donald Hall traces the illness and death of his wife, the American poet and translator Jane Kenyon. Hall, also an editor, critic and former U.S. poet Laureate, first met Kenyon when she was his student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the two married in 1972. It was a proverbial May-December marriage, lived 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 a testament and a lament to the marriage, a meditation on Kenyon’s illness and Hall’s life as it was after her death.
The collection is about the effect of illness on a marriage, but it is also a portrait of a marriage as a creative partnership. In a 2006 interview, Hall talked about the process of writing the poems in Without:
“I wrote many of the poems…by Jane’s side, as I sat with her in the hospital or at the house. Originally, I wrote many, many more poems than I wound up printing. Occasionally, I read one of them aloud to Jane—often, as I remember, at her request. ‘What are you writing, Perkins?’ I don’t remember her suggesting changes, but she may have done so. I believe that Jane liked it, me writing these poems. Poetry was after all the tremendous commonness between us. At least one of us was writing poems, I writing the poems that she could not write—about what she was going through.”
The New York Times called Without, “wretched and exuberant, and painful to read,” while Booklist said of the poems, “They are near-cruelly blunt about Kenyon’s physical deterioration and Hall’s own indecorous, raging sadness”— lines that remind us that subject matter this difficult is grasped across a range of emotion. Still, I read these poems to better understand both life and art, and to remember that time is short, that living is important, and that image and language can hold the most enduring and 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