Hall says 'Back Chamber' his last book of poems
It has come to this. The old poet lives "alone with baseball each night but not poems. . . . No / more vowels carrying images / leap suddenly from my excited / unwitting mind and purple Bic pen." Yet the story doesn't end. The ear still tells, the words please the tongue, their shapes the eye. The dead rise, ever the clay of Donald Hall's art.
Hall says The Back Chamber is his last book of poems. He turns 83 this month, and he continues to write on the family farm at Wilmot. When he was younger, he stayed fresh by working in two or three genres each day. His book list contains criticism, drama, memoir, short stories, sports stories and more. Now he is writing essays.
Yet poetry was always more than the first among equals for him. Hall is a poet, and for nearly seven decades he has told in poems an invented story of invented characters in an invented place. The story stretches back many generations, to life without refrigerators and cars, tractors, to an agricultural past as envisioned from a porch where Hall's ancestors once watched soldiers coming home from the Civil War. As closely as his invention may hew to events at Eagle Pond and to his experience, it has always been a myth. Or as Hall puts it, in his own mouth or another's, "I told a lot of lies."
For those of us who have lived in the orbit of the actual place, following Hall's work for the 36 years he has lived at the farm in Wilmot, his poetry has seemed like a neighbor's story. Not just any neighbor's, of course, because the poems are so explicit about death, grief, love and sex, and because an unexpected tragedy, Jane Kenyon's death of leukemia, occurred in the middle of it.
Taking Hall at his word, an iffy proposition with a poet, The Back Chamber is the end of the myth in poems. If so, the book advances the story while casting doubt on Hall's fear that the poet's art has deserted him.
In many poems in The Back Chamber he writes with a becoming humility. Gone is the second purpose of some earlier Eagle Pond poems, the determination to make performance art, poems to be read aloud in dramatic tones, often with a strong first-person element. Readers loved these poems for good reason. "Mount Kearsarge," "Names of Horses" and the others may prove to be Hall's most enduring work. But in these new poems, readers will hear the softer, wiser voice of an artist blessed with long life and still-keen perception.
The poem quoted in the lead paragraph of this review is "Meatloaf," a sequel to a poem from Hall's 1993 book, The Museum of Clear Ideas. The narrator's purported mission, then and now, is to explain baseball to Kurt Schwitters, a long-dead German Dadaist. Like the original, "Meatloaf" is written in nine stanzas, each with nine nine-syllable lines. The form is more accommodating than it might seem to the sound, surprise, humor and emotion that propel the poem.
Hall has added more than a dash of absurdist fun. Its meatloaf recipe, for example, sounds tasty enough until driftwood and library paste show up among the ingredients. The cooking instructions seal the deal: "Bake for ten hours / at thirty-five degrees." Then, after Hall explains the beanball to Schwitters, the headhunter's art echoes in one of the poem's best nine-syllable lines: "in a Scottsdale depository." This, of course, is where Ted Williams's frozen head is stored.
A master of compression, Hall captures emotional complexities in a few lines of concrete details. His grief over losing a young wife has subsided, but she remains a welcome, if ghostlier, presence in the myth:
Jane Kenyon, who loved baseball, enjoyed
the game on TV but fell asleep
by the fifth inning. She died twelve years
ago, and thus would be sixty now,
watching baseball as her hair turned white.
I see her tending her hollyhocks,
gazing west at Eagle Pond, walking
to the porch favoring her right knee.
Hall has a new companion now, in life and in poetry. Her name is Linda. Following in Kenyon's footsteps, Linda climbs Mount Kearsarge alone in "Meatloaf's" closing stanza. He stays in the car revising his report to Schwitters,
counting nine syllables on fingers
discolored by old age and felt pens,
my stanzas like ballplayers sent down
to Triple-A, too slow for the bigs.
Two other poems in this collection take the nine-nine-nine form. One is an elegy for Liam Rector, a poet friend, the other another letter to Schwitters in which Hall foresees the fate of his beloved family home and, by extension, the fate of nearly everyone and everything: "My grandchildren's grandchildren will know / nothing of a grassy cellar hole."
Shorter recent poems - "The Things," "The Back Chamber" and others - take up this theme. My favorite is "Maples," which ends with these lines:
I tear out dead limbs for next year's sake,
fearing the wind and ice storms of winter,
fearing broken trees, cities, and hipbones.
Hall drafted some poems in The Back Chamber decades ago and even published some in different form. He has always treated poems as having lives of their own. He takes out old drafts from time to time and revises them depending on how they - and he - have changed. The inclusion of these poems creates a time warp, but if this is Hall's last book of poems, it is also his last chance to publish these poems in a collection.
In his poetry Hall has told one man's story, a family's story, a singular story reflecting life's large themes - human folly, love, loss, death, fate. Although he has reached an age where a writer is lucky to be working, The Back Chamber is more than a fine book by an old elegist. It is also a worthy conclusion to one of the longest-running myths in American poetry.