July 2003

Tim Walker

poetry

The Painted Bed by Donald Hall

I can tell you something about how long Donald Hall has been a player on the poetry scene by revealing that he was the inaugural poetry editor of The Paris Review, which turns 50 this year. Hall taught for many years at the University of Michigan before moving back to his grandparents' old farmstead in New Hampshire, where he's now lived for decades, cranking out poem after poem, essay after essay, and book after book.

From my experience, Hall is uniformly solid as both a poet and prose writer. (Of all his writing, I probably like his memoirs such as Life Work best.) While I don't like every single line he's ever written, he is, as a writer, along the lines of Robert Duvall as an actor: clearly very good, and incapable of doing a piece badly. Michael Keaton once said that Robert Duvall is one of his most admired actors because (as I recall his words) "there's a level below which he does not go." Donald Hall may not be quite as good as Robert Duvall, but it's close.

Hall's second wife was the (much younger) poet Jane Kenyon. In 1995, Kenyon died of cancer at age 47, and the travails of her illness and death form the subject of Hall's 1998 collection Without. The Painted Bed is similarly personal and searing, essentially picking up where the earlier volume left off.

If you love someone permanently, if you've shared your life and your household with them, this book will break your heart.

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

That stanza of "Distressed Haiku" gives the flavor of the hardest lines in the book, unapologetic and visceral in their grief. Other lines burn less, but still carry home the enormity of pain inherent in losing one's love. "The After Life" details individual events as they unroll in the hours and days after Kenyon's death. In spare lines, Hall tells the story of the funeral day:

That night he turned
his children out of the house
with difficulty, and was
alone again with her absence.
Before bed he drove
to the graveyard to say goodnight,
and at six a.m. dropped by
as if he brought her coffee.

Maybe that hits me particularly hard since I bring my own wife coffee each morning at six a.m., but the conundrum is universal between permanent lovers who are pulled apart: What do I do now that you're gone?

Later poems in the collection, such as "Throwing the Things Away," focus on the painful, quotidian tasks that come as Hall confronts his wife's absence in his household and through the seasons. I believe that the fiction in these poems is at a bare minimum; if I'm right, Hall is unsparing in showing his own foibles and his own struggles in coming to grips with his loss.

The collection is made much more interesting because it doesn't merely grieve and then stop. Rather, it goes on with the 14-page "Daylilies on the Hill 1975-1989." (1975 was the year that Hall and Kenyon left Ann Arbor to settle in New Hampshire; 1989, whatever else it might signify, was the 200th anniversary of Hall's kinsman Benjamin Keneston, whose tombstone makes an appearance in the poem.) The poem avoids schmaltz (and continues to encounter the ramifications of Kenyon's death) as it mines Hall's well-informed, clear-eyed nostalgia for the passed eras in which his ancestors worked the land and inhabited the home that is now his own. He encounters bits of these bygone eras in physical detritus, in the habits of his neighbors, and in the rural landscape.

Four kinds of baked beans, three casseroles of meatball stew,
salad, macaroni and cheese, Edna's red velvet cake, Ansel's
best rolls, Audrey's homemade ice cream: The Church
Fair copies itself every year, Julys turning into decades,
repeating, growing smaller, like the barber's mirrored wall.

When I wake early morning in summer, I want to live
a hundred thousand days: The body's joy rises with dead
elms rising, black empty scaffolding alongside hayfields
under blue hills. Three crows as fat as roosters peck
at a coon killed on macadam: Yellow beaks rip on Route 4
in New Hampshire.

The easy pace of Hall's verse belies the skill with which it is made. No pyrotechnics, but an ongoing seminar in his weaknesses and how he works through them.

The final poems feature Hall as he has affairs with different women after Kenyon's death. The sex may not take away the sting of his loss, but it gives Hall another rich seam of material. I'm a long way from Hall's age (and, I hope, a long way from widowerhood), but I can hope that I face my own aging and my own humanity with as clear and witty a gaze as the one Hall uses on himself.

Poets should, through the beauty or the wisdom they impart in small doses, help us along the journey of life. Without fanfare, with no jaw-dropping flights of brilliance, Hall succeeds. The Painted Bed by Donald Hall
Mariner Books
ISBN: 0618340750
112 Pages