on Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Yesterday I watched “A Life Together,” Bill Moyers’ 1993 film on Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. The imagery and narrative are familiar to those who have read Hall’s essays of the last five decades – Eagle Farm and its generations, the marriage and habits of the poets, the accounting of their illnesses and household habits, the sounds of their poems. Hall was 65 then, having persisted through cancer of the colon and liver. He told Moyers, “My chances of living to seventy aren’t very good.” Two years later, Kenyon died from leukemia. Now at eighty-six, Hall has published Essays After Eighty.

HallCover.jpg“Family stories build you, create you,” Hall continued, adding that the writer thrives by expending himself. In his case, recurring trips to the well have both consumed and replenished the source. Poetry has embodied the game of catch between sustenance and mortality. “The best day is real,” he wrote in Life Work (1993), his meditation on a writer’s labors, “but takes its power and its energy from the urgency of its contradiction.” He then recalled the procedure to remove half of his colon:

“When I went into the hospital I brought work with me, and in the last two days before I went home I started writing again. When I began to recover, still anxious about recurrence, I worked with a manic prolixity – not well – and knew in my heart that I worked against death. What’s more, I realized that I had always worked – the real thing, the absorbedness – in defiance of death.”

On page 10 of his selected poems, White Apples and the Taste of Stone (2006), you will find his early poem “My Son My Executioner” with these final lines: “We twenty-five and twenty-two, / Who seemed to live forever, / Observe enduring life in you / And start to die together.”

Hall’s work in defiance of death has entailed wresting it into the poems through sounds that pulse with intention. He has described reading poetry aloud as “oral sex.” Fortunately, Moyers’ was generous to the poetry; Hall and Kenyon read a lot of it for the documentary, and Hall savored every syllable. Below, the final lines of “Great Day in the Cows’ House” typify his terse handling of the subject:

When his neighbor discovers him at eighty-seven, his head
leans into the side of his last Holstein;
she has kicked the milkpail over, and blue milk drains
through floorboards onto the manure pile in the great day.

HallMiddle.jpgIn his new essays, Hall speaks from Eagle Farm once again, the property he inherited from his grandparents, the house in which generations shored up their strength for work, the bedrooms where they died. His method as prose stylist is as vigorous and idiosyncratic as ever: a return to the foundational materials, perceived anew, usually through something at hand, with leaps to slant memories on the periphery.

In “Three Beards,” he reviews the key phases of his life in terms of a trio of beards. The sweep of hirsute eras plunges to tart particulars. His first beard flourished while he taught at the University of Michigan: “As the sixties began, if I was sluggish and beginning my lecture – maybe I had stayed up all night with a visiting poet – I paused by the front row and asked if anyone had some of those diet things. Immediately, female hands held forth little ceramic boxes full of spansules or round pink pills. After I ingested Dexedrine my lecture speeded up and rose in pitch until only dogs could hear it.”

HallObama.jpgHis current beard, shown up close on the book’s front cover, is the signature of his eighties, now shared with a new companion: “As Linda wheelchaired me through airports, and my eighties prolonged, more than ever I enjoyed being grubby and noticeable. Declining more swiftly to the grave, I make certain that everyone knows – my children know, Linda knows, my undertaker knows – that no posthumous razor may scrape my blue face.” Grubby and noticeable are the prominent attributes of Essays After Eighty. Even disabled, he has traveled nationwide for readings -- and to Washington, where President Obama awarded him a National Medal of Arts ("My poet laureate outfit and my gray flannels had been perforated by moths").

He begins the book with “Out the Window,” remarking on the departure of poetry writing. “New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance,” he writes. “Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two … When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial.” As ever, brevity and clarity keep the reader engaged, the ear in thrall. He continues his companionable lament in the title essay: “How could I complain after seventy years of diphthongs? The sound of poems is sensual, even sexual. The shadow mind pours out metaphors – at first poets may not understand what they say – that lead to emotional revelation. For a male poet, imagination and tongue-sweetness require a blast of hormones.”

Hall.jpgThere is an essay on his lifelong tobacco habit (“There’s one advantage to smoking. When our breathing starts to vanish, we will not ask ‘Why me?’”). Another piece deals with “Physical Malfitness,” the exercise routine he now follows, effectively deflated by his stories of avoiding exertion throughout his long life (“Everything is boring that does not happen in a chair [reading and writing] or in bed”). In “Rejection and Resurrection,” he touches on a poet’s ambition for honors and the unlikelihood of being remembered and read after one dies. (As the first poetry editor of The Paris Review, he rejected Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra.”)

“For sixty years I have been writing my autobiography in book after book, poetry and prose,” he says. In the mid-seventies, he left a tenured position at Michigan to live at Eagle Farm with Kenyon, his second wife, and to earn his living as a freelancer. He drew a circle around what was important to him – but the life within the circle seemed to grow larger and larger, or rather he grew it larger for us all, even as he tracked all the diminishments, heartbreak, and loneliness. “It’s almost relaxing to know I’ll die fairly soon,” he writes in “Death," "as it’s a comfort not to obsess about my next orgasm. I’ve been ambitious, and ambition no longer has plans for the future – except these essays. My goal in life is making it to the bathroom. In the past I was often advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do?”

[Published December 2, 2014. 134 pages, $22.00 hardcover.]