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'Without: Poems' by Donald Hall

Hall creates moving memorial to his wife

Sunday, June 14, 1998

By Michael Wurster


Without: Poems

By Donald Hall

Houghton Mifflin


"Without" is a harrowing book to read. It tells the story of the final illness and death of Donald Hall's wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and of his grief.

Hall and Kenyon were married almost 20 years. They met at the University of Michigan, where she was his student. She was then 22, and Hall was 19 years older. They lived most of their married life in New Hampshire, in the house where Hall's great-grandfather had farmed and his mother had been born in 1903.

Although Hall was the better-known poet, there was a time, probably beginning in 1990 when her third book, "Let Evening Come," was published, that one became more interested in Kenyon's poetry than in Hall's. Her work had a beautiful purity to it, and it was hard not to love this woman who fought so gallantly against an inherent melancholy.

Jane Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia in January 1994. She died at home the morning of April 22, 1995.

"A sharp, almost sweet/smell began to rise from her open mouth./He watched her chest go still./With his thumb he closed her round brown eyes."

The above are the concluding lines of "Last Days." "Without" begins with a long poem, "Her Long Illness," which continues at intervals interspersed with other poems. "Her Long Illness" starts with Kenyon in the hospital receiving chemotherapy and ends with hope for recovery:

"He felt shame/to understand he would miss/the months of sickness and taking care."

The narrative from the beginning of the book to Kenyon's death is filled with activity and specific details. One particularly moving section occurs when Hall and Kenyon work on choosing poems for "Otherwise," her last book, published posthumously:

"Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep,/she said, 'Wasn't that fun?/To work together? Wasn't that fun?' "

"Last Days" is followed by two poems describing Hall's immediate response to Kenyon's death. The title poem, "Without," is the pivotal poem of the book and is written in an apocalyptic style completely unlike any of the other poems, organized around the concept "without." "The Gallery" recounts his return from Kenyon's grave to make a photo gallery of her, dominated by the:

"front page of the Sunday

'Concord Monitor'

in color with headline:



The remaining poems of the book are addressed to Kenyon, most of them titled as "Letters." They are conversational, like letters, with Hall telling Kenyon of his activities, his feelings, his grief and rage at her passing. There are many sensuous descriptions of the natural world, the New Hampshire fields and woods, the nearby mountains they both loved. The final poem, "Weeds And Peonies," is a nature poem. In it, Hall has a vision of Kenyon:

"Your blue coat/vanishes down Pond Road into imagined snowflakes/with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging."

And later, in the same poem, he is

"staring at Mount Kearsarge/where you climbed wearing purple hiking boots. 'Hurry back. Be careful, climbing down.' "

At the beginning of this review, I described "Without" as a harrowing book to read. That's because of its sadness and its intense intimacy.

What saves it from being too much is the writing. Despite the intimacy of the narrative, there is a grace and dignity, even humor, that make the book work as literature. This is not mere confessional autobiography; there is not a false note. We are rewarded by the experience despite its painfulness.

I've been reading Donald Hall's poetry with pleasure for a long time. Some poems I've liked better than others. "Without" is a masterpiece.

Michael Wurster is a poet and founder of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange.

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