22 October, 2021

LitStaff Pick: Our Yearly Re-Reads

Donald Hall

This book is the only one 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. Its twenty poems trace the illness and death of Hall’s wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. 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. 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 both a testament and a lament to the marriage, Kenyon’s illness and Hall’s life as it was 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 (and their counterpart on the page, detail) are often 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

—Lauren Alwan

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