Grace Cavalieri interviews Donald Hall, 14th Poet Laureate of the United States, as he takes office in Washington D.C. This interview was recorded at the Library of Congress, September 2006.
GC: Donald Hall is the author of 15 books of poetry. When not working on poems, he has published reviews, criticism, textbooks, sports journalism, memoirs, biographies, children's stories, and plays. And he is here with an opening poem.
Donald Hall: White Apples
when my father had been dead a week
with his voice in my ear
I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door
white apples and the taste of stone
if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes
GC: I'm holding this new book, Selected Poems 1946-2006, and that title poem is so perfect, because you say you write of life, death and New Hampshire.
GC: And it's all there in a few lines. When you hold this book, which represents sixty years of writing what do you think? What do you feel about this book?
DH: Oh, I'm proud of it, but at the same time I wonder whether I made all the right choices, both in and out. But by and large I'm pleased with it, and I'm glad to get a chance to read aloud from it.
GC: It's so good to have all of these poems together, that's the key thing, because you have written piles of books, and we now have this compendium, and we can just scan your life. I wish they had put the dates of each book in the table of contents,
DH: Well, I don't print them book by book necessarily. Some books are spread over different sections. And I make a series of new books. But I could have put the dates the approximate dates of every section.
GC: Because they were chronological.
DH: They are basically chronological.
GC: We're at the Library of Congress. And, for me, all the rest has been rehearsal for this moment. Donald Hall was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and he's the only child of Donald and Lucy Wells Hall. Graduate of Philips Exeter Academy, he received his Bachelors Degree from Harvard, and a B Lit, Bachelor of Literature from Oxford. Donald Hall published his first poem at age sixteen. Do you remember that poem?
DH: No, I can't remember it. I do remember what it was about. It was New Hampshire. It came out in a little magazine from a small town in New York. The magazine was called Trails, and it specialized in rural poetry.
GC: Well, the distinctions just came easily after that. Age sixteen to present day. And we're going to hear another poem from you life.
DH: Let me read one that I wrote when I was twenty five years old, when my first child was born. It's easy to remember the date of the child, by his birthday, and the date of the poem necessarily, because I wrote it just after he was born, fifty two years ago. It's called, My Son, My Executioner.
My son, my executioner,
I take you in my arms,
Quiet and small and just astir
And whom my body warms.
Sweet death, small son, our instrument
Your cries and hungers document
Our bodily decay.
We twentyfive and twentytwo,
Who seemed to live forever,
Observe enduring life in you
And start to die together.
GC: I was talking about that poem yesterday, to the poet Merrill Leffler yesterday. He said it was written right before his first son was born. So, I think he had a communication with you. Everyone has had a communication with you over the years.
DH: Just about.
GC: At Harvard, you were editor for the Harvard Advocate, and at Oxford, the Oxford Poetry Society's Journal. So that brought you into an editorship early on. Where you were with the Paris Review.
DH: Yes, I was poetry editor for the Paris Review for the first nine years of its existence, and I got to know a lot of poets of my own generation that way. Because when I read them in other magazines, and admired their work, I wrote to recruit them for the Paris Review. I remember one day when I wrote letters to James Wright and Louis Simpson on the same day. And both sent me poems, and both began friendships as well.
GC: As well as Ezra Pound.
DH: With Ezra Pound I did an interview for the Paris Review, as I did with T.S. Eliot.
GC: Marianne Moore....
DH: Marianne Moore as well.
GC: What was that like, to sit with TS Eliot?
DH: I knew him a little, so it wasn't terrifying. When I first met him in his London offices, I was going up to Oxford, right after Harvard, and he had asked me on a visit at Harvard to come and see him. Well that was absolutely terrifying, because he was King of the Mountain, in a sense that no one has been King of the Mountain since. And I met him and I was, oh, so deferential. I must have been disgusting. But he knew what I was going through, and he was perfectly kind. And as I was leaving he said, lingering in the doorway, "Let me see. Forty years ago I was going from Harvard to Oxford. Now you are going from Harvard to Oxford. What advice may I give you?" And he waited just a millisecond and said, "Do you have any long underwear?" I didn't even know it was funny at the time that he told me. I bought long underwear on the way back to the hotel.
GC: Coming from one who was so unbending, though, it's pretty funny.
DH: He wasn't really very unbending in private conversation with me.
DH: This is another poem called The Man in the Dead Machine. And when I say it, I have to identify the dead machine, when you're just going to hear it. It's in the second line. It's a Grumman Hellcat, a fighter plane that fought on the American side in the Pacific war. The Man in the Dead Machine.
High on a slope in New Guinea
the Grumman Hellcat
lodges among bright vines
as thick as arms. In nineteen forty-three,
the clenched hand of a pilot
glided it here
where no one has ever been.
In the cockpit the helmeted
by dry sinews at neck
and shoulder, and by webbing
that straps the pelvic cross
to the cracked
leather of the seat, and the breastbone
to the canvas cover
of the parachute.
Or say that the shrapnel
missed me, I flew
back to the carrier, and every morning
take the train, my pale
hands on a black case, and sit
by the firm webbing.
GC: Donald Hall. I was looking at the selection of poems on your CD and I listened to them all at once; it took about an hour, I think. And I was taken by the poems I think might be your touchstone poems. I thought to myself, he chose these poems for the CD because they are poems he wouldn't want to live without. Am I making that too dramatic?
DH: No, that's pretty true, and they're the ones I like to read, in particular. There are a few favorite poems that I don't like to read aloud. But for the most part, I write for the ear or the mouth, and I chose poems which definitely could be represented by the mouth.
GC: You say words were meant to say. You say that in one of your essays. But the interesting thing about listening to it all from your early days is, I think the tone in your poems has not really changed that much.
DH: Really? That's hard for me to see.
GC: I interviewed David Wagoner last week. He felt that his poetry from the beginning was very different from his poems today. Even when you look at James Dickey, how formal he was in the beginning; how heroic. Then how down-home he got. But I feel that you knew who you were early on. You were very centered in your poetry spirit in the beginning, and although the poems have changed, and your mood has changed...
DH: The poems have become a lot more naked. Over the years.
GC: I believe that, but I think the tone of voice is a lot the same.
DH: Again, that's very hard for the poet himself to see.
GC: Well, that's why it's good to have it all in one book.
DH: This is a poem called Gold.
Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
caressing and dozing, your hands sleepily
touching my hair now.
We made those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.
GC: Donald Hall taught at the University of Michigan, and there he met Jane Kenyon, and they married in 1972, and they moved to a place that he always wanted to live, Eagles Pond, his grandparent's farm, a hundred and forty acres, and lived there for twenty three years of marriage with Jane, until she died in 1995 of leukemia. The important thing that has come out of this book for me is that, nobody really belongs to us except in memory. I mean, nobody really belongs to us except in memory, right?
GC: I mean, there's a poem by Josephine Jacobsen watching her husband sleeping, and she knows that she doesn't own him. But we couldn't enter your life with Jane. We couldn't walk by the pond with Gus. We couldn't sleep in the painted bed. But because of these poems, you have created a spiritual reality where we can enter.
DH: Probably especially in the poems that were letters to Jane.
GC: But that is a sacred thing. You have created an alternate universe, where we can enter your poetic life, where we could not have really entered your actual life.
DH: I was creating it for myself in her absence, you know.
GC: But look what you have given us. It is a whole dimension that we can enter. But these poems are called elegiac. Do you know any poet who's not elegiac?
DH: Virtually none.
GC: These poems that come from '95 on certainly are, and you allow your vulnerability to be in our hands. You have an essay that says, "Vulnerability is the opposite of sentimentality."
DH: Good, I agree with it, sounding it. I don't remember saying it, but hearing you say it, it sounds right to me. I'll read one of the Jane poems, since we've been speaking of that. This is a poem called Weeds and Peonies, and actually it's the first poem I began after Jane's death, probably two or three weeks after her death I began it, before I wrote the letters to her. Weeds and Peonies; she was a great gardener, as this makes clear.
Your peonies burst out, white as snow squalls,
with red flecks at their shaggy centers
in your border of prodigies by the porch.
I carry one magnanimous blossom indoors
and float it in a glass bowl, as you used to do.
Ordinary pleasures, contentment recollected,
blow like snow into the abandoned garden,
overcoming the daisies. Your blue coat
vanishes down Pond Road into imagined snowflakes
with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging.
but you will not reappear, tired and satisfied,
and grief's repeated particles suffuse the air
like the dog yipping through the entire night,
or the cat stretching awake, then curling
as if to dream of her mother's milky nipples.
A raccoon dislodges a geranium from its pot.
Flowers, roots, and dirt lay upended
in the back garden where lilies begin
their daily excursions above stone walls
in the season of old roses. I pace beside weeds
and snowy peonies, staring at Mount Kearsarge
where you climbed wearing purple hiking boots.
"Hurry back. Be careful, climbing down."
Your peonies lean their vast heads westward
as if they might topple. Some topple.
GC: Nineteen books of poetry. And twenty books of prose, collections of essays about poetry in baseball, and children's books. Eleven books for children, and the one I have, The Oxcart Man, had the great privilege of winning the Caldecott Medal for the illustrations. And it started with a wonderful poem of your own, The Oxcart Man.
DH: I'd like to read that if you'd like to hear it.
GC: Let's get there, because that sums up the history of New Hampshire.
DH: The Oxcart Man.
In October of the year,
he counts potatoes dug from the brown field,
counting the seed, counting
the cellar's portion out,
and bags the rest on the cart's floor.
He packs wool sheared in April, honey
in combs, linen, leather
tanned from deerhide,
and vinegar in a barrel
hooped by hand at the forge's fire.
He walks by his ox's head, ten days
to Portsmouth Market, and sells potatoes,
and the bag that carried potatoes,
flaxseed, birch brooms, maple sugar, goose
When the cart is empty he sells the cart.
When the cart is sold he sells the ox,
harness and yoke, and walks
home, his pockets heavy
with the year's coin for salt and taxes,
and at home by fire's light in November cold
stitches new harness
for next year's ox in the barn,
and carves the yoke, and saws the planks
building the cart again.
GC: Donald Hall. That poem, just imagine it now; on several pages with those amazing, folkloric illustrations, so colorful. I think there's another children's book in you, and I think it's the story about the snow so high the oxen got his foot stuck in the chimney. Wouldn't that be good?
DH: That's a tall tale told by my cousins.
GC: It needs to be in print. Absolutely.
DH: Yep. Well maybe I can.
GC: The twelfth book. Right here, born right here in front of us.
DH: Well thank you.
GC: Donald Hall has mastered every form of writing. He has lived by his wits. You remember who you said that about
DH: Edwin Muir Edwin and Willa Muir.
GC: And you have lived by your pen. I do not know any poets, who might be living like you do. I mean, who are not really affiliated with a college.
DH: I was for some years of course, but thirty odd years ago I quit‹
GC: You gave up tenure.
DH: Gave up tenure, and moved to the farm to write all day. It was terrifying, but it was absolutely the best thing I ever did, besides marrying Jane in the first place. She was urging the move to the farm. She wanted to get out of the academic world and live by ourselves in the country and write all day, and that's just what we did.
GC: And all of your essays, your editing, your prose, biographies, memoirs, text books, journalism, interviews. Let's acknowledge University of Michigan Press. I think those guys are great, look at all these books in front of us.
DH: Yes. So many of them, so many of them.
GC: You started all that, Donald. Poets on poetry.
DH: The series of books collecting the words of poets on poetry, many of them interviews.
GC: You started so many projects there. How did you do that?
DH: I wasn't teaching. I wasn't going to cocktail parties or dinner parties. I was staying home in New Hampshire, working while Jane worked.
GC: But isn't there something about being on the ground floor in life, at the inception of the universe, when the Paris Review started, when the University of Michigan was just getting it's breath? You really saw what things could become, and like Allen Ginsberg said, 'every time there's a crevice, stick something in it.'
DH: Yep! Yes I did. I found that I had a lot of ideas, and followed them all up. It was a busy life, but I enjoyed it enormously.
GC: It is still a busy life .You're going to write about the ox, with his leg in the chimney?
DH: Alright. I have my assignment.
DH: Let's have a poem called Names of Horses. New Hampshire is one of my subjects, and this is one of my New Hampshire poems. I used to come up to New Hampshire in the summer with my grandparents. The house where I'm living now, which was my great-grandparents to begin with, and I would work on poems in the morning, but in the afternoon, I would go haying with my grandfather. And it was a farm which consisted of one old man and one horse one old horse for all that work. But I helped him in the summer. Names of Horses.
All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through the spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.
In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread in the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;
and after noon's heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, up hill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day, hanging wide from the hayrack.
Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
of a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the window sill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.
When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending
one October the man who fed you and kept you, and harnessed
you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your
and laid the shotgun's muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your
and fired a slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your
For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground old toilers, soil makers:
O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
GC: Nothing more beautiful than the naming of things.
DH: I didn't begin it that way. That was a late thought.
GC: You mean you thought of ending it with those names, and then you titled the poem that?
GC: I was looking at the consistency of the stanzas, and I was saying to myself that, you always are dependable about your line lengths, and your presentation. And you've always taught that. You said, you can't just drop words on a page, and just have them sprinkled all over the place.
DH: You have to set them. And you set them with their music in mind.
GC: Talking about form; if you were to compress what you think it is and you've talked about it a lot in essays and recently, I think American Poetry Review last year had also a remark or two by you. You say it is line of sight, where you want to see it on the page. That shows us how to read it on the page.
DH: That's right. It's a kind of musical notation; where you break the lines, and where you put the spaces.
GC: Braille for the sight.. And we can't just throw the words across the room. But other than that, you don't get too pedantic. You talk about unity and symmetry, and I think some call that form.
DH: Yes, unity and conclusiveness bringing a poem together at the end. When you're writing a sonnet, you know a lot about the hundred and fortieth line when you begin it; when you're writing free verse, you don't. You have to make it up and find it for yourself each time. I've got one little poem that I've used to show that. It's a little New Hampshire poem called Mt. Kaersage.
Great blue mountain! Ghost.
I look at you
from the porch of the farmhouse
where I watched you all summer
as a boy. Steep sides, narrow flat
patch on top
you are clear to me
like the memory of one day.
The top of a mountain floats
I will not rock on this porch
when I am old. I turn my back on you,
Kearsarge, I close
my eyes, and you rise inside me,
DH: At the end of the poem, blue ghost, and the first line is Great blue mountain ghost. Words two and four make the final two words. And when I wrote it, I didn't know I was doing that. But that is part of the coherence - and elsewhere as well. I remember changing the lines at the very end, changing the way that I broke them, so that they go I close my eyes and you rise inside me Blue Ghost. So they end, o - i i i oo o.
GC: Eyes rise..
DH: Long vowels, all of them.
GC: Do you think we'll have a Donald Hall poem that's never been seen before, like the one by Frost just discovered?
DH: There are plenty of them around. That don't deserve to be seen, in my opinion.
GC: They don't have coherence? Well can you give them some coherence?
DH: I'll work on it.
GC: He has won the Edna St. Vincent Millet Award. The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Ruth Lilly Award, the NBCC Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, nominated for the National Book Award never, never lunging toward fame, ever. Donald Hall never lunged toward fame. He just sat there and wrote for sixty years, and let the prizes fall down on him.
DH: The pleasure is in the writing, you know. It's not in the publishing, or what happens afterwards. I mean, I don't mean to say I'm above it all. I'm pleased when those nice things happen, but it's the daily work, the struggle with language, that is the real reward.
GC: The wish to keep going, the wish to keep doing it again. But don't you think the awards help to give you reason to go on?
DH: Here's a little tiny poem that I like to read sometimes. It's called The Poem.
It discovers by night
what the day hid from it.
Sometimes it turns itself
into an animal.
In summer it takes long walks
by itself where meadows
fold back from ditches.
Once it stood still
in a quiet row of machines.
what it is thinking?
GC: That's the beauty of it, right?
GC: It might even be thinking something you're not thinking.
DH: Again and again it is. In the poems that I write, and eventually like, I started out saying something I had no idea I was saying.
GC: "Look what I said" is "Look what I know." Maybe we only know what wrote. You go back and, you think, oh, that's all I really know.
DH: Yes, I suppose it is.
GC: You're poems are crafted. I know you spend a lot of time on revisions but do you think when you write an essay, that it is quite as laborious?
DH: No, it's easier. It doesn't take so many times, so many revisions. A poem typically takes at least fifty, and often it goes up to a hundred. But an essay they're not easy I remember writing them years ago when I could do them in four drafts. But I'm not so glib now, and nowadays it takes me frequently twenty drafts or so.
GC: Maybe nobody would notice if you stopped after four.
DH: Maybe not, but I do.
GC: The essay. You say someplace, you've finally learned to change your which to that and your that to which. It's going to be a very nice Fall in Washington, and you're going to be here. And I remember when you first came out with a book, an anthology, with Robert Pack and Lewis Simpson, and it was called The New Poets of England and America. Now I think that was like your first anthology.
DH: It was the first anthology, yes.
GC: And since then how many, I wonder?
DH: Well, the general anthologies there was just a couple more. There was the second volume of that anthology, and then there was one I did alone for Penguin, called Contemporary American Poems.
GC: I have not read your plays yet, Donald.
DH: Maybe they're not worth reading. I've worked a bit in the theater, and I really haven't been very pleased with the result.
GC: Did you see them produced? Can you tell me what disappointed you, or what you hoped for?
DH: I think they had the prose writer or poets typical problem of depending on speech, and perhaps even on long speeches, overmuch. Not enough on stage business, and things that you can show with action.
GC: That's interesting. The difference between dramatic literature, and The Play. I think that's very insightful of you to say, because most poets just lambaste the nature of American theater if their plays are not successful. You have to get in the sand box in the theater, really, when you've got a play on.
DH: I love working with actors and as a director, and making changes during rehearsal. I drove people nuts that way. But the results were not really satisfactory.
GC: What theater was it in?
DH: Oh, there've been a couple of plays. I did a play back in Ann Arbor, about the Wobbly movement, the IWW, and that one actually worked visually better than most. But it was able to work visually because it had an enormous cast, using students who did not belong to Equity, or get Equity money. There was only one Equity player in the show. And I think it was mounted with great skill by the producer, who also allowed me to do things, like freezing the motion on one part of the stage, and continuing on another. But it could not have a life, because you can't get anywhere with a cast of fifty. You can't mount commercial theater with that.
GC: Today you cannot get a play on with more than seven characters in New York, so you'd have forty three left over. What was the other play? There were three.
DH: Another play was based on String Too Short to Be Saved, a book without much dialogue, and without much conflict in it, which made it interesting. But I was able to put it into just a few characters, and put it on the stage. But it depended too much on long speeches and on language in general; and the action in the book and on the stage was limited.
GC: I understand, but the Irish are now bringing that into New York, and they're standing there looking at the audience and giving monologues. And you just might be in style any minute.
DH: But that second one, the String play, which I called A Bone Ring, mostly, has had several productions.
GC: It sounds like Beckett. What is the third play?
DH: I guess there's no third play.
GC: I've found a piece of paper that says some titles that you haven't mentioned. One was Ragged Mountain Elegies.
DH: Oh, that's another title for The Bone Ring.
GC: And An Evening's Frost?
DH: Oh, An Evening's Frost I put on, yes, that's true. I was forgetting that. That was a portrait of Robert Frost. That worked pretty well. It was not long after his death, and it played for four months in New York at the Theater De Lis, which is now the Lucille Hotel. And then a subway strike happened then and took it down. It was living by hand and mouth, just about making do every week. But a year later it went on the road to play at colleges, and it was a little biography of Robert Frost. It would be dated right now. I mean there are references to Frost reading at the Kennedy Inaugural, and so on, which everybody knew at the time, but they wouldn't know now.
GC: You think they don't remember?
DH: I think many people have never heard about it.
GC: That's the only good thing that's happened in history for a long time. And we forgot that?
DH: After Jane died, I wrote many poems of grief. For the first year, I wrote her letters. Later I wrote some poems in rhyme and meter. I had written poems in rhyme and meter when I as young, but most of my life I've written varieties of free verse. But here is another one about her garden, called in fact, Her Garden.
I let her garden go,
let it go, let it go
How can I watch the hummingbird
Hover to sip
With its beak’s tip
The purple bee balm – whirring as we heard
It years ago?
The weeds rise rank and thick
let it go, let it go
Where annuals grew and burdock grows,
Where standing she
At once could see
The peony, the lily, and the rose
Rise over brick
She’d laid the patterns. Moss
let it go, let it go
Turns the brick green, softening them
By the gray rocks
That lofted while she lived, stem by tall stem,
Blossom with loss.
GC: That recitatif does it, doesn't it?
DH: Yes, and the refrain, "Let her go, let her go." I know whose poetry in particular was behind these poems; Thomas Hardy, who wrote, had a first marriage which ended in his wife's death, whose marriage was very dissimilar to Jane's and mine, but he wrote genuine and deeply moving poems of grief. Here's another one of the metrical poems that I wrote after Jane's death. It's called Summer Kitchen.
In June's high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.
I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.
"It's ready now. Come on," she said.
"You light the candle."
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.
GC: I have to say is very nice because husbands do notice wives, and sometimes favorably, but the fact that you notice every gesture she made, and how she walked, striding with her hands in her jeans pockets, and all those noticing things that wind up in the poems. You know, it's very lucky to have a poet for a husband.
DH: I was lucky to have a poet for a wife. She was marvelous.
GC: I teach her poetry. She was really something.
DH: She was amazing. I get boxes of anthologies with her in it all the time. She's constantly in anthologies. Anthologies of poetry, or anthologies that are thematic, Jane is always in them.
GC: This is true. She's a major American poet. A preeminent poet.
DH: Who died at forty seven.
GC: You have a poem which says by now you know if you have a consciousness, or if the soul exists.
DH: Yes, that's one of the letters.
GC: You show us a great illuminating heart, and the illumination of human relationships in this world, where it's broken without it.
DH: Here's a poem called Affirmation.
To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.
GC: If we lose loss, what will we have left?
GC: How big is the pond?
DH: The pond is forty acres of water.
GC: I don't think I've seen it written anywhere. Forty acres of water. Forty acres of water.
DH: It would be a lake most places. But New Hampshire understatement makes it a pond.
GC: Yes, let's not shout. Your poems never shout. You get mad sometimes, but you never raise your voice. Maybe the way we maintain power, is to lower the voice when we have something important to say.
DH: I'll read a poem from the time of Jane's illness. This is called The Ship, Pounding.
Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses' pods to Jane's room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship's massive engines
kept its propellers turning.
Week after week, I sat by her bed
with black coffee and the Globe.
The passengers on this voyage
wore masks or cannulae
or dangled devices that dripped
chemicals into their wrists.
I believed that the ship
traveled to a harbor
of breakfast, work, and love.
I wrote: "When the infusions
are infused entirely, bone
marrow restored and lymphoblasts
remitted, I will take my wife,
bald as Michael Jordan,
back to our dog and day." Today,
months later at home, these
words turned up on my desk
as I listened in case Jane called
for help, or spoke in delirium,
ready to make the agitated
drive to Emergency again
for readmission to the huge
vessel that heaves water month
after month, without leaving
port, without arrival or destination,
its great engines pounding.
GC: What would you like to read next? Do you like Secrets?
DH: Yes, I do like Secrets.
You climbed Hawk's Crag, a cellphone in your baggy shorts,
and gazed into the leafing trees and famous blue water.
You telephoned, in love with the skin of the world. I heard you
puff as you started to climb down, still talking, switching
your phone from hand to hand as the stone holds required.
You sang show tunes sitting above me, clicking your fingers,
swaying your shadowy torso. We attended to each other
in a sensuous dazzle as global as suffering
until gradual gathering spilled like water over the stone dam
and we soured level across the long-lived lake.
Can one flesh and consciousness adhere to another,
knowing that every adherence ends in separation? I longed
for your return, your face lit by a candle, you smile
private as a kore's under an inconstant flame and dreamt
I stared into the flat and black of water afraid to drown.
It is half a year since we slept beside each other all night.
I wake hollow as a thighbone with its marrow picked out.
In fallen snow, a crow pecks under the empty birdfeeder.
When the house lights go out in wind and heavy snow,
the afternoon already black, I lie frightened in darkness
on the unsheeted bed. No one comes to my door.
Old age concludes in making wills and trusts and inventories,
in knees that buckle going downstairs. Wretched in airless
solitude, I want to call you,
but if you hear my voice
you will unplug your telephone and lie awake until morning.
I remember you striding toward me, hands in jean pockets,
each step decisive, smiling as if you knew that the cool
air kept a secret, but might be cajoled into revealing it.
GC: That is beyond what a human being can write. Hollow as a thigh bone. . How did you ever write that. ...the bed ...
DH: The unsheeted bed.
GC: Unsheeted bed. How did you get the energy to write that?
DH: It took me a couple of years to write it, and I worked at it not every day, but frequently. And it was a different poem, with different parts, and maybe five or six pages long at some point, and I finally I made the unsheeted beds as one of the later changes, as I recall.
GC: That's a perfect image. It wouldn't be the same without it.
DH: Okay, one more poem. I'll read it's called North-South.
GC: Donald Hall. You have never ignored the beauties around you, even terrible beauties. Never have you ignored one thing around you. Not the sounds, not the feelings, not the grief . You are my dream radio partner. I don't want to say Goodbye.
DH: Thank you so much
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Grateful Acknowledgement to Houghton Mifflin Company for permission to reprint the poems read by Donald Hall from his book WHITE APPLES and the TASTE of STONE, ©2006, courtesy given by Donald Hall via the Poet Laureate Program.