Friday, September 17, 2010

Interlude: Poet Donald Hall and His Next Book

Autumn arrives in Vermont.
Last night we traveled to Plymouth State University to enjoy an evening with Donald Hall and his poetry -- the 13th time in a row that Hall has brought forth the Eagle Pond Author Series at this lovely campus. It was a hard drive, especially on the way home, through driving rain, wind, and the mountain wilds of Franconia Notch. But it was worth it.

Hall read entirely new work, from a book of poems he has just completed: MEATLOAF. The opening poem for the book (and the evening), "The Things," came out in The New Yorker earlier. It explores the presence of "stuff" in the farmhouse where this poet lives, the one where his grandparents lived before him.

Poems that followed often used stanza forms, which Hall confirmed he began to use "again" about two years ago. From "Chanteuse" to "Meatloaf" ("one of my friends called baseball / almost poetry") to "Conclusion at the Union Lake," the poems bind both Hall's family heritage and his loves and losses -- or, more particularly, the losses of his beloved baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. The audience, mostly gray-haired but with a decent number of students, gave a warm reception to these -- but it was for the poem "Apples, Peaches," a series of "jumprope rhymes" that opens with one that Hall found in the Treasury of New England Folklore and continues with his own improvisations mocking death, that the audience members cracked up in laughter and saluted with wild applause.

My husband Dave called some of Hall's poems last night "bad-boy poems," delightfully funny yet ribald; one involved a couple making out in a car in 1926 and ended wildly. Balancing these was the somber pantoum called "The Number" that fingers the ache and imagery of the attack on the World Trade Center at September 11, 2001.

A few poems in this collection evoke the presence of Hall's deceased wife, the much-loved poet Jane Kenyon; Hall calls her "Jennifer" in the poems, but the references are clear and he mentioned the use of the written substitute name. Another goes back to the final days of a dog that readers of Donald Hall's work may recognize.

There is much to appreciate and salute in this new collection, with sorrow redeemed by affection and the art of treasuring life as it comes and goes. MEATLOAF will find as warm a welcome in publication next year, I believe, as the poems did last night. After an encore poem ("The Gardener," a Jane poem), Hall commented, "I started writing poems when I was twelve and they were always sad. So I'm coming into this naturally, seventy years later." At eighty-two, he is frail and smaller in size -- but not in stature. He gives a heck of a good reading -- worth every dark and rainy mile to get there, and back.

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