To Make A Speaking Voice

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Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

A Friend Revisited

by Donald Hall

Beside the door
She stood who I had known before.
I saw the work of seven years
In graying hair and worried eyes,
And in a smile:
“Find in me only what appears,
And let me rest awhile.”

Though it had not been honesty
Always to say the sudden word
When she was young,
I liked the old disguise
Better than what I had heard –
False laughter on the tongue
That once had made all efforts to seem free.

I do not ask for final honesty
Since none can say
“This is my motive, this is me,”
But I will pray
Deliberation and a shaping choice
To make a speaking voice.


Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

By Jane Kenyon
 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years….

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me….

I am food on the prisoner’s plate….

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills….

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden….

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge….

I am the heart contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest….

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow….

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit….

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name….

Embrace What Time Remains

Donald Hall

Donald Hall (1928 – 2018)

November

by Lorna Davis

The golden days of late October fade
As bleak November’s iron skies descend.
When tresses, like the leaden clouds, have greyed,
We see our fruitful time’s approaching end.
The sunshine that besieged us with its heat
Now leans against the south walls, cold and tired.
There is no empire time will not defeat;
Each Golden Age that flared has soon expired.
Byzantium lies silent under steel,
Persepolis has crumbled back to dust.
Despite the wistful longing we might feel,
All times of summer fade, as fade they must.
Embrace what time remains; it will not last.
Your autumn, too, will soon be ancient past.

One of the challenges of starting a new relationship in my 50’s is what to do with all the stuff each person has accumulated over the years?  This is a joint problem of considerable size and proportions.  The first problem is duplication, we both have many of the same things it takes to run a household, everything from towels to vacuum cleaners to kitchen utensils.  Sometimes its an upgrade. My girl friend’s set of tools is far superior to my own and so it didn’t take much for me to got rid of a bunch of mine that were old, subpar or worn out.  But sometimes what to keep and what to purge can turn into a bit of a tug of war, each partner not ready to let go of certain things and both a bit unsteady in what to support and when to throw the red objection flag on the other. 

The second problem is sheer amount of stuff and where does it all possibly go? I have decided that renting a storage unit to kick that can down the road is a sketchy idea at best, and neither is buying a shipping container or building a pole barn to increase capacity for storage a great solution.  There are too many things that go into storage never to reappear and if I am not diligent about getting rid of stuff, I will only create time bombs filled with dusty, rusty junk for my children to sort through after I am dead.  None the less I have delayed several tough decisions for one year by taking the cowards way out and getting a storage unit for a reduced but still sizable chunk of my possessions that I did not get rid of in my most recent move. I am consciously aware it is a $110/dollar a month guilt tax to insure I have a holding pen for stuff I didn’t need this year and probably won’t next, until I screw up the resolve to get finally rid of it. 

The third problem is each person has different attachments for different reasons to different things that are irreplaceable, sentimental or just stuff that you have grown attached to over the years simply because it is tied to pleasant moments in our lives.  What one sees as valuable treasure the other may mistakenly see as junk and before you know it feelings are hurt when someone questions why we have combined between  the two of us 10 aluminum water bottles in a drawer, when probably something like 4 or 5 would suffice.  

Most people have things of sentimental value, its  part of who what makes us human.  These objects are signposts of our journey.   It makes total sense to the person who has kept these nostalgic things, but at some point you have to fit two households into one and practicality has to influence sentiment and common sense has to kick in. 

I have found this process of decluttering is made even more complicated by being the gate keepers of our dying parents estates.  We are at that age and because over the years divorces have added to the incremental number of households that executors must settle it can add up.  In our situation, two empty nesters that are nearly 60 somethings are grappling with the contents of not just two households worth of stuff but  four or five. And, because we are related to interesting people and artists, there is lots and lots of cool stuff which is hard to part with or do it justice for the value it once represented in our loved one’s minds.  Four years after my mother’s death I was still sorting boxes a month ago that I had put off prior, unsure of what to do with their contents.  In the end, I threw almost all of it out, and what I didn’t throw out, I knew in the back of my mind, I was just repeating the cycle again, synthesizing eight boxes down to one, that I would eventually discard, I just wasn’t ready to do it on that day of sorting. 

All of this is a bit overwhelming, the actually physically dealing with it and the emotional side of it all. Particularly when the decision process between two partners is slightly different in how to approach the challenge of simplification.  Slash and burn, figuratively and in some cases literally, doesn’t work well because there are always a few bones smoldering in the embers that one of you will likely come to regret.  Taking an archivist approach and lovingly storing and restoring things I have found can be equally disappointing, except for the most quirky or exceptional of memorabilia and possessions.  I learned this lesson the hard way.   I took the time to re-record into digital mp3 files all of the children’s books that my mother had narrated onto cassette tapes over the years as gifts for my children, tapes that we had listened to over and over and over when my kids were growing up and even into adulthood. The Christmas after her death I thought everyone would enjoy having a copy and it would be a way to prevent them from deteriorating further. Yet when the long project was finally finished and everyone was given a memory stick with all the files included,  it felt oddly creepy and unsatisfying.  The stories weren’t the same now that my Mother was no longer alive, and to hear her voice widened the gap in death, it didn’t shorten it.  I know that I haven’t yet gotten enjoyment out of listening to them.  I hope someone else has.  Maybe someday I will feel differently and stumble across them again on my google cloud and listen to my mother’s read those wonderful stories and take pleasure in the sound of her voice, but for now, it is a cautionary tale on what I thought I would want in the future, may have turned out to be just fools gold weighing me down. 

 

The Things

by Donald Hall
 

When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—
that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,
a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother’s souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.


Trust-busting Not Exactly At Its Word

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Richard Watson Gilder by Floyd Campbell

 

President And Poet

by Donald Hall

Granted that what we summon is absurd:
Mustaches and the stick, the New York fake
In cowboy costume grinning for the sake
Of cameras that always just occurred;
Granted that his Rough Riders fought a third-
Rate army badly general’d, to make
Headlines for Mr. Hearst: that one can take
Trust-busting not exactly at its word:

Robinson, alcoholic and unread,
Received a letter with a White House frank.
To court the Muse, you’d think T. R.’d’ve killed her
And had her stuffed, and yet this mountebank
Chose to belaurel Robinson instead
of famous men like Richard Watson Gilder.


Of the more than 200 poems included in Donald Hall’s self compiled anthology published in 1990 titled Old and New Poems, this is the lone sonnet.  It is so out of place in terms of Hall’s body of work and so obscure, that the only thing I can make of it is that Donald was hoping we would all get the joke and laugh along with him.  There is a long history of using sonnets either as a vehicle to honor or insult a specific literary or political figure.  Miguel de Cervantes wrote a series of sonnets that were so clever in delivering their barbed critique that his insults seemed more like good-natured advice and remarkably made their way through the sensors of his day.

So what is going on in this sonnet?  Hall is skewering both Teddy Roosevelt and Edwin Arlington Robinson. History has not been kind to Robinson’s legacy as a poet.  Although the recipient of three Pulitzer prizes, largely because of the notoriety Roosevelt created by promoting Robinson as a poet, most of Robinson’s writing is dismissed by modern poets and critics as weak and worse, uninteresting. Robinson may have been a significant American poet in his day, who willingly paid the price in poverty and obscurity at the beginning of his career. But his success rested on Roosevelt’s patronage,  securing for him a government position, giving him a steady source of income and increased his literary stature through his personal praise. As for his work, his once-popular Arthurian trilogy has fallen out of favor and considered mediocre at best.

And how has Richard Watson Gilder faired in terms of history?  Well obviously Hall feels he should have been treated better. Despite being a prolific and popular poet, who was skilled at rhyme and meter, Gilder’s work has faded into obscurity as well. Gilder was the editor of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, one of the nation’s most esteemed periodicals in the late 19th century. As such Gilder was a person of influence in American letters during this period. None of his sonnets would make my top 100 list.   But, as the punch line to Hall’s riddle, he is certainly worthy of a little investigating.


Sonnet

By Richard Watson Gilder

What is a sonnet? ‘Tis the pearly shell
That murmurs of the far-off murmuring sea;
A precious jewel carved most curiously:
It is a little picture painted well.
What is a sonnet? ‘Tis the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstasy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.
This was the flame that shook with Dante’s breath;
The solemn organ whereon Milton played,
And the clear glass where Shakespeare’s shadow falls:
A sea this is–beware who ventureth!
For like a fjord the narrow floor is laid
Mid-ocean deep to the sheer mountain walls.

 

Even When We Are Young

 

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Donald Hall

Twilight After Haying

by Jane Kenyon (1947 – 1995)

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air.  (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed–
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
–sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen. . . . the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses. . .

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.


Few poets wrote as much as about death as Donald Hall.   He made a career of death, he  had plenty of experience from which to draw upon, writing very personally about the loss of his wife Jane Kenyon to cancer.   Does a lifetime of writing about death prepare you for your own?

Hall passed away last weekend at the age of 89.  He was by his own admission pleased by his ability to earn a living as a writer, calling himself a “bandit” for having such good fortune.   Hall was awarded nearly every award and recognition a poet could receive and was by all accounts a writer who wrote hard, nearly every day.

If work is not antidote to death, nor a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work.  Get done what you can.

Donald Hall

 


Affirmation

by Donald Hall (1928 – 2018)

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.