A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pages
The poet and essayist Donald Hall, who died in June at age eighty-nine, began writing about old age long before he grew old. His poem “On Reaching the Age of Two Hundred” came decades before 2014’s Essays
After Eighty established him as that rare thing, an accomplished memoirist with an octogenarian’s perspective. The poem suggests that the very old deserve respect and a podium to voice their years of accumulated wisdom.
When I awoke on the morning of my two hundredth birthday, I expected to be consulted by supplicants like the Sibyl at Cumae, I could tell them something.
The Cumae sibyl was granted eternal life by the god Apollo, but not eternal youth. She continued to deteriorate until all that remained was her voice kept in a jar. Hall was granted a long life by whomever grants such things. But as he approached ninety, he wondered whether his work would survive him.
At least for now, Hall’s prose lives on. And as long as it does, so will his poetry. A Carnival of Losses:
Notes Nearing Ninety, like its predecessor, frames the past from the near-death experience of the present.
Essays After Eighty is a remembrance and a warning, a somber, sometimes funny, telling of life’s hardship and disregard. Hall details simple tasks turned difficult and even impossible. (“Each season, my balance gets worse ... I no longer cook for myself ... My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons.”) Decline accelerates in A Carnival
of Losses, the word “carnival” suggesting the absurdity of it all. Naps become more frequent. Dentures are lost. Gone are the risky, middleof-the-night journeys from bed to bathroom in answer to nature’s call. Instead, a jar is kept nearby. The first chapter is called “You Are Old,” and its setup might remind you of a Jeff Foxworthy comedy routine. “You are old when mashed potatoes are difficult to chew, or when you guess it’s Sunday because the mail doesn’t come.” Some lines are more poetic than others: “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.”
Hall’s decline serves as entry into subjects he’s addressed in both poetry and prose his entire career: love, death, and New Hampshire. His last two prose collections, like the later poetry volumes Without and The Painted Bed, are preoccupied with his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who died from leukemia at age forty-seven in 1995. That somber story often leads to discussions of her poetry and his, as well as the poets that surrounded them.
Prose is also addressed. Hall has been writing enduring essays since the 1950s, and their resemblances to his poetry in subject matter and phrasing are easy to find. After a stint as the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2006 and 2007, and publishing some 30 works almost evenly divided between poetry and prose, he gave up writing verse in 2010. “Prose endures,” he explains in Essays After Eighty.
Notes revisits one of his earliest essays, “The Wild Heifers,” an account of chasing down lost cattle as a boy in New Hampshire with his grandfather. Notes
Nearing Ninety follows the story’s path from Hall’s student days to its publication in
The New Yorker after that magazine had first rejected it. (“The Wild Heifers” was collected in Hall’s first memoir, String Too Short to Be Saved, from 1961.)
At least one topic is addressed in both books: beards. In Essays After Eighty, he tells the history of the three beards he’s grown, calling the last “monumental” and declaring his intent to carry it to the grave. In Notes Nearing Ninety, he considers the shaving of the founding fathers by slaves, poets with beards, and what it might have been like if legendary baseball players, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson among them, had grown beards. His conclusion? “Someday everybody will shave.” His prose, always musical, especially in his early years, is less so here, his writing more direct than in Essays After Eighty. He’s especially pithy in the section, “The Selected Poets of Donald Hall,” in which he writes about his run-ins with poets, including being splashed while waiting for a taxi with William Carlos Williams. The briefest recollection, one sentence on the poet Allen Tate, reveals that Tate “always looked grumpy.”
In a question fit for a sibyl, Hall wonders if his poetry, as well as that of poets he admires — Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, and Richard Wilbur among them — will have a life of its own. The topic comes up in a short piece on the obscure Boston poet John Holmes, who Hall reports once told him that “in his heart he knew that his poems would last forever.” (Holmes died in 1962). Wilbur, who died at ninetysix in 2017, mentored a young Hall before winning two Pulitzer Prizes in poetry. “In his work he ought to survive,” Hall writes, “but probably, like most of us, he won’t.”
Hall’s decline serves as entry into subjects he’s addressed in both poetry and prose his entire career: love, death, and New Hampshire.