October 2008

Chelsey Philpot

nonfiction

Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall

If poet Donald Hall were an undergraduate today he would be that kid in English class who dominated each and every class discussion -- even the professor would roll her eyes when he raised his hand. As a student, he would never amble; he would stride. He would carry a book under his arm with the title out so everyone could see what he was reading. He would be opinionated and obstinate, but also driven and passionate.

In his September-released memoir, Unpacking the Boxes, Hall describes his childhood ambition to become a poet, his tenure as Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006, and the difficulties of old age. His book has all the staples of a memoir: love, sex, grief, and shock, but it is by no means a tell-all tome. Hall is honest but reserved. He saves himself from name-dropping with his reverence for his famous friends. He saves himself from self-aggrandizing with his humor and self-deprecation. Unpacking the Boxes is a tale of a poet’s ambitions, but even more it is a tribute to poetry and the beauty and wonder it gives to life.

Hall grew up in Connecticut. His childhood was solitary and divided between Connecticut and his father’s dairy farm and New Hampshire and his maternal grandparents. In high school Hall writes that he, “worked hard to write poems -- and equally hard to establish myself as fascinating, or at least weird.” After three lonely years at Phillips Exeter Academy, he entered Harvard University and found the intellectual community he had been seeking from the moment he decided to be a poet.

At Harvard, Hall studied along side Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Robert Bly -- to name a few. His descriptions of late night intellectual debates are intoxicating with nostalgia. With contagious energy, Hall makes the whole world feel confined to one campus and life-long success hinge on a few well-placed words. From Harvard forward his life and career take off.

Hall, in a seemingly nonchalant manner, writes that he has had dinner with Vladimir Nabokov, was a friend of Adrienne Rich, and made the mistake of rejecting Allen Ginsberg for the Paris Review. He delves with detail into his professional relationships, but leaves much of his personal life in shadow. Why did he and his first wife divorce? How did he meet and marry his former graduate student the poet Jane Kenyon? How did he react when he first heard she leukemia and not long to live? Hall mentions having cancer only fleetingly and he dances over his “first” stroke. By leaving out so much, Hall expects readers to turn to his poetry and younger prose. He demands his readers do their research. The list of his books at the beginning of Unpacking the Boxes is not suggestive. It is required reading.

Hall’s omissions are balanced by his candor about career failures, sexual escapades, depression, and self-doubt. But above all else, his anecdotes about aging feel the most authentic. Old age means existing on “The Planet of Antiquity.” On the Planet, “you don’t waste time planning ten years in the future. You learn I suppose, to live in the moment -- as you have been told to do all your life. You live in the moment rising from a chair. At some point, you will no longer be able to rise from a chair. So drink your coffee and plan your day, or at least your next half hour.” For his next half hour, Hall writes, he will continue living, working, and welcoming friends at his New Hampshire farm.

Unpacking the Boxes concludes with appropriate sadness and satisfaction: an image of Hall at an old writing desk surrounded by a lifetime of manuscripts and books. Hall’s final reflections call to mind lines from his poem “An Old Life,” where “I sat myself at the desk / for this day’s lifelong engagement / with the one task and desire.” Hall ends exactly where he set out to be: living a life of poetry.

Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618990658
208 Pages