Benedictine Life, Poetry

Unpacking the Boxes: a small tribute to Donald Hall, (1928-2018)

Yesterday, when I read in the Concord Monitor that one of the last major American poets of his generation, Donald Hall, died at his home at the age of 89, I felt sad that I had neglected to write to him one more time. I never told him how much his example of the good life, the writing life, had shaped my own life. He would have liked to have heard that, I think.

I didn’t know Donald Hall, but I knew his writing well, and I knew the story of his life through his books. In 1987, I addressed my first and only fan mail to him. My writing mentor at the time, Michael Dennis Browne, urged me to send a copy of my poem inspired by Hall’s famous essay, “Goatfoot. Milktongue. Twinbird,” My poem’s title about my son, celebration motherhood and mother tongue, was “Michael Speaks Milktongue” subtitled Thank you, Donald Hall. 

I felt silly sending an amateurish poem to a distinguished man of letters, but I didn’t think he’d ever receive it. The envelope was addressed to “Donald Hall, Eagle Pond Farm, Danbury, NH.” Is that even a legal address? 

A few weeks later, I found in my mailbox a small envelope enclosing a small, classy, manually typed, gracious letter on stationary embossed with the initials DH. Or was his name? I’ve forgotten the details and I’ve lost the letter. I’m only now developing the discipline to keep important letters, to stay rooted in a place, to be a poet. 

I never expected that five years later, in 1992, I would sit behind Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon in the MainStage tent at the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival listening to Coleman Barks read his translations of Rumi, listening to the Paul Winter Consort, enviously watching the two poets hold hands and whisper together in a way that made me feel like I had never, in my whole life, been loved that tenderly. 

They turned around between performances and chatted with me. They learned I was from Minnesota, home of their publisher, Gray Wolf Press. During the next few years, I bought most of everything they had written. I was a Kenyon-Hall groupie.

When I coincidentally found myself living in New Hampshire in 1999, under the shadow of the same mountain they had brought into their poems and essays (Kearsarge), Jane had died of cancer and I was married to the love I yearned for but didn’t yet know, when I witnessed that pair of poets’ devotion to each other. Over the next ten years, I felt a kind of quiet kinship with Donald while I wrote and read much poetry. It was silly, really. We ate in the same restaurants, drove the same country roads, read some of the same books, and lived completely separate lives. I had a different name when we exchanged letters of gratitude in 1987, and when I ran into him at poetry readings, I certainly didn’t expect him to remember having talked with me once. 

I gave him space because as starstruck as I was, I still had the maturity of mind to know I didn’t know him and that fans sometimes come across as creepy stalkers. So I kept to myself that his writing, and Jane’s, had substantially formed the way I read and write, and therefore the way I live. It’s hard to say whether I was attracted to their writing because I share many of their values– for silence, for word, for place–or whether their writing has over time helped shape many of my values. In any case, their writing taught me that it’s good to live poetically, which is to say, as attentively, kindly, and as rooted as I’m able. 

New Hampshire is good place for poetry. Celia Thaxter. Richard Eberhart, Robert Frost, Wesley McNair, Charles Simic, Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Alice B. Fogel, Patricia Fargnoli, Jennifer Millitello. That’s a partial list. The place is crawling with poets. Here’s a link to dozens of New Hampshire poets featured by Patricia Fargnoli during her tenure as that state’s Poet Laureate. 

Recently I read Donald Hall’s latest memoir, Unpacking the Boxes. I thought then that I ought to write him another short note of gratitude, thirty years after that first schoolgirl-with-a-crush one, but I put off that task.

One of the prescriptions for living as a Benedictine is that we keep the specter of death ever before our eyes, not to be ghoulish, but to live with an awareness of the fragility of life, to keep in mind amidst the business of our daily lives, what matters and what doesn’t.

Yesterday Donald Hall died. Today, I am missing New Hampshire and grieving opportunities missed in which I might have sprinkled more kindness in the world but didn’t. And so, more aware that all eras and every life comes to an end, I tossed away my Monday agenda and spent the day reading poetry, writing poetry, talking to poets, and frequently pausing to hold the hand of the love of my life, and to gratefully kiss his sweet presence.

Rest in peace, Donald Hall. And thank you. 

2 thoughts on “Unpacking the Boxes: a small tribute to Donald Hall, (1928-2018)”

  1. I’m not a poet, but I love poetry, especially Donald Hall’s and his equally talented wife, Jane Kenyon. Who can forget her poem “Otherwise.” How fortunate that you met him through a letter and both in a face to face encounter!

    I’ve read Unpacking the Boxes and reviewed it in Goodreads and Rifflebooks. One line I admire from one of his books goes like this: “Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns,” the tender, touching words of a bereft husband.

    1. I, too, love those words. So illuminating about the similarities between solitude and loneliness (distinctions which many people never have the pleasure of experiencing) and yet there is such difference.

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