Donald Hall was an extraordinary poet who I came to know through the poetry of his wife, Jane Kenyon, who quickly became one of my favorite writers for her spare, essential descriptions of life, nature, and ultimately, death. (She died at age 47 of leukemia.)
Kenyon was much younger than her professor, then husband, Hall and eventually they left Michigan to move back to Hall’s family farm in the Northeast, the region where I was living when I first discovered Kenyon.
I would often visit a funky bookstore in Worcester, Massachusetts with wide-planked wooden floors and rows of low raw wood bookshelves. I lost countless hours there, flipping through books on psychology and writing and paganism and poetry and whatever caught my fancy at that time.
That’s how I discovered Jane Kenyon, flipping through the first few pages of slim poetry books. So when my then-husband and I were listening to NPR one day as we drove to the mall and an interview with Donald Hall came on it caught my attention. It caught his too – this discussion of the love story that was Hall and Kenyon’s life story.
We were newly married then, young, mid-20s (too young to be married, really, but that’s another story) and the idea of losing someone – a true partner and soul-mate and peer and fellow artist – at such a young age seemed beyond comprehension.
We had each experienced loss by then, of course. I had lost a young uncle to a brain aneurysm and he a much deeper, more violent loss when his best friend in college was stabbed and killed trying to break up a bar fight.
But there was something about the interview with Hall – the discussion of his wife’s slow death, the time they had to talk about their life together, his experience of loss – that hit us both hard.
We sat in our little car, grey snow on the ground around us, and without having to say anything we chose to listen to the rest of the interview, tears streaming down both our faces as we listened to Donald Hall’s poetic, raw rendering of a reality we knew existed, but frankly were too young to really understand.
That experience bonded us, for a while. That we instinctively knew to sit and listen to the pain, that we could both cry there, in the cold car, in the dirty winter parking lot. We were proud of that – of us.
I’m not sure at what point I ended up buying Hall’s book, Without. His poems about his life with Jane Kenyon and her death. I know I have had it – and carried it with me from house to apartment to house again over and over in the lifetimes since that day in the car, listening to NPR.
When I took a creative writing class years later I mentioned that one of his poems always made me cry, and so, like a performing monkey I brought the book in on the last day of class and read the poem for my classmates who were, for the most part, much younger than I and had not yet found a poem that moved them in that way. Or at least didn’t admit it.
I told them about the image of the tree and how it got me every. single. time.
I searched today for the poem. I wanted to share it with you. Turning the pages of the book I couldn’t help but think of my friend Dee, who died last November at age 49, and her husband. The awareness of death, the talking of it, the final days, hours, minutes, words.
I’ve discovered other that poems make me cry now.
But still these words Hall wrote a few months after Kenyon’s passing resonate. He wrote them while visiting her grave site:
from your stone, I gaze at the file
of eight enormous sugar maples
that rage and flare in dark noon,
the air grainy with mist
like the rain of Seattle’s winter.
The trees go on burning
without ravage of loss or disorder.
I wish you were that birch
rising from the clump behind you,
and I the grey oak alongside.
I see them there, two trees, together again, don’t you?
– excerpt from Letter in Autumn from Without by Donald Hall, 1998.