A Car­ni­val of Losses: Notes Near­ing Ninety by Don­ald Hall

Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 224 pages

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Bill Kohlhaase

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.

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