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book review

‘Essays After Eighty’ by Donald Hall

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Donald Hall’s career as an outstanding American poet culminated in the 2006 publication of a large selection of his poetry, “White Apples and the Taste of Stone.’’ The volume included, most notably, poems he wrote about the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and its aftermath, a memorable testimony to love and loss. But in the title essay to this appealing gathering of 14 short prose pieces, he declares that, as he aged into his eighties (he is now 86), “poetry abandoned me.” In the “ceremony of losses” he calls old age, “[p]rose endures.” This possibly final volume to a life of prose — more than 15 books (not counting his works for children), including a wonderful collection of interviews with modern poets — is instinct with humor and mischievousness.

It may be that no previous writer has described the “unknown, unanticipated galaxy’’ of his “antiquity” by observing that old people “are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae.” They can be annoying (old ladies in the supermarket) but are “permanently other” and “extraterrestrial.’’ The fine extravagance (green skin, two heads) is typical of the mordant wit that is an important part of Hall’s self-portrayal. He notes that he once wrote a poem, “In Praise of Death,” attempting to get rid of the bugbear by flattery; now he looks back on his ambitious life and says that “ambition no longer has plans for the future”: “My goal in life is making it to the bathroom. In the past I was often advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do?” He is disabled, can’t drive a car or walk much, gets pushed around in a wheelchair by his companion, Linda, spends much of his days looking out the window, “oddly cheerful . . . and largely alone.”

Hall looks back on his life not to set forth moments of achievement, like being named poet laureate or receiving a medal of arts from President Obama, but to celebrate less than glorious events. In an essay on poetry readings (“Thank you Thank You”) of which, of course, he has done hundreds, he admits that once at a Minnesota college he was asked to shorten his reading from 50 to 25 minutes, since after his presentation, the new homecoming queen would be selected. He concludes his reading to long applause (“An audience applauds longest when it knows it has not been paying attention”) and is replaced at the podium by last year’s homecoming queen who announces, “[N]ow comes the moment you’ve all been waiting for.” The dean sitting next to him whispers, “She didn’t mean it the way it sounds!” Cold comfort farm.

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In “Physical Malfitness” he describes his twice a week routine with a trainer, admitting that “Exercise hurts, as well it might, since by choice and for my pleasure I didn’t do it for eighty years.” In “No Smoking” he chronicles the decline of cigarette smoking over the years, but rather stubbornly reveals that he still puffs away, as do “[g]uilty, grubby men and women gathered on sidewalks in front of buildings.” But he gets to smoke indoors, going out on the porch to do it only when his companion is staying with him. There he feels “the horror and rage of motorists who witness the red tip of my culpability.” Besides smoking, eating frozen dinners, watching the Red Sox when they’re on TV, and taking naps, he writes prose in which he aspires to become steadily more naked, “with a nakedness that disguises itself by wearing clothes.”

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There is one curious absence in these essays: any talk about what he reads — poems, novels, biography, history. There is barely a word about what one guesses might be an elderly writer’s preferred activity. But we can be sure that he remembers, and the list of some of those remembrances was enough to warm this oldster’s heart: the Trylon and Perisphere at the 1939 World’s Fair; Joe Gordon hitting a home run in the 1941 Yankees-Dodgers World Series; Guadalcanal; buying War Bonds in school 10 cents a week; the vastness of Hamden High School in the Connecticut town where he grew up; V-J Day. He concludes the list by noting that “One day, of course, no one will remember what I remember.” A fine book of remembering all sorts of things past, “Essays After Eighty” is to be treasured.

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William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College.