The Back Chamber is the latest volume of poems by one of America’s most revered poets, Donald Hall, now in his 80s. Above all, this is a volume about transience: about the diminishments of aging, about death and loss.
Death haunts this book. Primarily it is the death of Hall’s wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in 1995, when she was only 48. His grief for her permeates the poems. Interwoven with this devastating loss is Hall’s heightened awareness of the nearness of his own death and of the physical and mental losses that come with aging. Typical is this image of himself from the book’s closing poem, “Green Farmhouse Chairs”: fantasizing a Jane who had not died, he writes that “She looks after him as he shuffles/ into a bent and shriveled other.”
Equally distressing to Hall is his sense of the loss, with age, of his poetic skills. This distress dots the poems and is the poignant theme of “Poetry and Ambition,” where he presents himself “pick[ing] at lines that try to become a poem.” His self-portrait continues:
sits in the blond maple chair
writing, crossing out,
picking up a thesaurus, trying to
find a metaphor—
and makes a doddery language
with no poetry in it.
Yet I wonder if Hall’s motif of losing his poetic craft isn’t a gentle self-mockery, or more an anticipated fear than a reality, because diminishment of poetic skill is not much evident in these superbly crafted poems. Take “Con-vergences,” its three-line stanzas each ending with the word “water,” through which “converge” the lives (and deaths) of his mother and his wife, along with Jesus turning water into wine. From this Gospel miracle, the poem’s final stanza moves into gratitude for poetry’s own miraculous transformative power:
Within the poem he and she—
hot, cold, and luke—
converge into flesh of vowels and
or into the uncanny affection of
earth for water.
Three poems in this collection are shaped in Hall’s signature “baseball” form: nine stanzas of nine lines each, with nine syllables in each line. Hall clearly continues to enjoy the challenge of this form. Although in one of the poems, “Meatloaf,” he presents himself as a pathetic old poet “counting nine syllables on fingers,” his mastery of the form is undiminished.
As is his playfulness. “Meatloaf,” for instance, is a tour de force, intertwining baseball, travel adventures and a meatloaf recipe. The recipe starts off straight —“Buy two pounds of cheap fat hamburger/ ...add leaves of basil,/ Tabasco”—but then the list of ingredients moves whimsically into “newspaper ads, soy sauce,/ quail eggs, driftwood, tomato ketchup,/ and library paste.”
There is playfulness at points throughout the book. But it is sadly missing in a sequence of poems about the sexual encounters into which Hall (as he confesses in his recent memoir, Unpacking the Boxes) threw himself helplessly in response to Jane’s death. I find the explicit sexual details uncomfortable and painful, and pain is the poems’ predominant emotion. All incorporate a sense of mysterious hopelessness of the loss of fulfillment even before it is found.
This is also the theme of the volume’s central, long (21-verse) poem, “Ric’s Progress.” Here, however, Hall crafts an ironic distance from his sexually driven narrative, which is a spinoff from Hogarth’s famous series of paintings, “A Rake’s Progress.” One can see that this modern morality tale would have been fun for Hall to write, but this reader found it more tedious than engaging.
More successful are the many poems in which Hall focuses on his beloved New Hampshire farmhouse: his poignantly waning life in this house where his ancestors lived, his gratitude for small things that can still be held onto even as time pulls them from our grasp. Both the title poem and the opening poem (“Things”) create a beautifully delicate balance between the preciousness of particular things and their inevitable loss. In “Things,” the poem’s single sentence deftly enfolds four generations’ apparently trivial belongings (“a white stone perfectly round,/ tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell…”): memories for those who kept them, “valueless” for those who come later and will throw them away.
In “The Back Chamber,” the poem tenderly touches with words the things filling Hall’s childhood bedroom in this house. The objects carry the life of those who saved them: “A graduation dress/ That Ben’s wife Lucy made in homespun,/ Reports from school in nineteen-one....” Each of the two single-sentence stanzas, however, ends with the blunt word “dead.” In Donald Hall’s world, the “dead” come alive in their belongings.
But dead they are, as he knows he will soon be. All is transience in this world of his, of ours. Yet the paradoxical wonder is that transience is, in a sense, held at bay by these very poems. Poetry gives transience a language and hence at least a relative permanence. Touching the things of this world with words crafted into art, Hall extends their life and offers them to us to treasure.