Wandering the aisles made of beige steel and unrememberable carpet that was the poetry section of my local suburban library, I waited for poetry to come to me. What arrived was The Painted Bed, a collection by Donald Hall. I could’ve opened it to any poem. The title poem. “After Three Years” or “Kill the Day,” maybe. It was an unraveling, the first time I had witnessed language bearing the pain that lives in the wake of immense loss with such incisive vulnerability. I checked it out and consumed the whole thing immediately. I was 17. A decade away from that moment, Donald Hall is now dead. The event that consumed so much of his writing has now arrived for him. From the earliest poems—the ones written during his first marriage and the years spent teaching before his second, great marriage to the poet Jane Kenyon—it was a nagging subject. Death haunted his poems from his returning to the ancestral farm with Kenyon, a purposeful separation from the world of the academy, through his long and happy hermitage until his diagnosis with cancer, which he survived, and then Kenyon’s diagnosis with leukemia, which she did not. The poems after that, until Hall turned 80 and decided he no longer had the capacity for poetry, are absolutely steeped in it. Saying that Hall was some kind of apostle of grief is to mischaracterize him, though. There were many Donald Halls. There was the early Hall, first poetry editor of The Paris Review and poetry anthologizer of particular staunchness who ensured the ongoing legacy of the greats who stood just behind him like T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. In his early years, Hall wanted to impose his taste upon the poetry world at large, fiercely advocating for contemporary poetry, with a particular fondness for poets like Geoffrey Hill and Thom Gunn, even as writers outside of the nation’s universities were creating poetry in their own image. There was the Donald Hall that left the world of higher education to wholly dedicate himself to his ancestral New Hampshire farm, where his attention was upon the daily devotion to his now-hallowed relationship with Jane Kenyon and his writing. Though present throughout his early poetry, the focus of his writing sharpened onto themes of grief, lingering and ever-present in the ghostly shadow of Mount Kearsarge—a place where the spirits of the past seemed to mingle with the heat of the living, and desire, as the long-blooming flower of Hall’s deep affection for Kenyon grew along with her own career as a poet as it eventually eclipsed his own. Then there was Donald Hall, alone. The final third of his career was almost entirely defined by absence. His own miraculous cancer survival moved nearly immediately into Kenyon’s leukemia diagnosis, her dying, and her death. The elegiac qualities moved from the tinged shadows of his work and onto the main stage, consuming it as he chronicled the slow descent into the valley of a Jane-less life and his long wait there. The other Donald Halls—the baseball writer, the poet laureate, the endless correspondent—revolved in peripheral moons around the great preoccupations of his life. It’s tempting, at the end of his long life, to simply take the memory of Hall and quietly place him in the corral labeled “Pastoral Poets.” In the wake of his death, many have eulogized him while confining him there. Though Ted Kooser and Wendell Berry may have some shared images with him, Hall’s writing on his roots, the landscape of New Hampshire, and the people who populate his world were much darker and deeper, much stranger than what can simply and neatly be patted on the head and deemed pastoral meditation. His writing is much more aptly compared to his forebear, T.S. Eliot, or the fellow native New England poet Elizabeth Bishop than to his rural contemporaries. What makes Donald Hall a remarkable poet, what assures him a lasting place in an American literature that looks much different from when he began to edit The Paris Review or his purposeful anthologies, was his dedication to honesty. This sounds banal to state, but to read Hall, from the very beginning right up until the end, is to watch a writer grow into a kind of honest and forthright form. The way Hall laid bare and excavated the guts of humanity, ripping wide open the tepid surface of the most conservative annexes of society to reveal how it all dripped with raging grief and aching desire was, and remains, profound. As a writer, he seemed to really take to heart the words the sculptor Henry Moore once said to him, quoting Rodin as he quoted a craftsman: “Never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume.” An important part of his dedication to honesty was that it demanded humor, and Hall’s was wry and midnight dark. In the poem “Letter with No Address,” one of his many odes to life after Kenyon’s death, he describes yet another day of crushing grief, and he ends on this image: “Sometimes, coming back home / to our circular driveway, / I imagine you’ve returned / before me, bags of groceries upright / in the back of the Saab, / its trunk lid delicately raised / as if proposing an encounter, / dog-fashion, with the Honda.” Hall was a master at this, disorienting an entire poem to crushing ends with apparent glee, but to a purposeful end. As he says in another poem nearby: “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.” Donald Hall is now, after it all, the posthumous Donald Hall. He is now the deceased Donald Hall, as he so looked forward to being in many poems. He’s now, if not with his beloved Jane Kenyon, at least no longer in a world without her. Only the words they wrote are left behind, breathing without them. Several years before his death, long after Hall stopped actively writing poetry, he published what would be the final collection of his poems before his death. For a constant, lifelong editor of his own work, this is a far more monumental and immutable work than any that preceded it (particularly the door-stopping, career-spanning collection White Apples and the Taste of Stone that coronated his brief moment as poet laureate). On the back of the collection, “Gold”—an older poem, published after his cancer diagnosis but before Kenyon’s—ends with this stanza: “We made in those days / tiny identical rooms inside our bodies / which the men who uncover our graves / will find in a thousand years, / shining and whole.” Image: Vitro Nasu
Grieving is such a basic aspect of human narrative that one might think, after a millennia, that there would be little new to say on the subject. That doesn’t stop new narratives from being recorded and published and read on every platform imaginable; poetry, memoir, and novels serving as the specific and personal record of some individual mourning. What causes me to appreciate this continual outpouring of writing about loss is how purely against articulation grief makes itself. What grows within you after you experience a deeply felt loss robs you of your ability to address it; the loss of the self that accompanies grieving serves only to create distance between you and those closest to you. Death not only silences the body of those it takes, but often leaves the witnesses mute as well. Vi Khi Nao may sense this as well, based on the route her debut novel, Fish in Exile, takes through language to illuminate loss and its multiform sorrows. It turns the world inside out, blowing up a suburban tragedy into tale that unselfconsciously aligns itself with the mythic without once utilizing it for melodramatic flair. As Padgett Powell once said, possibly misquoting his old teacher Donald Barthelme: “the more wacky the mode...the more heartbreak there better be or you're not going to get away with it.” Though strangeness or uncanniness may be better terms to describe the language employed here than “wackiness,” heartbreak is certainly abundant. The book opens in medias res, in the first person narrative of Ethos, who moves through the world detached and fumbling (In one fragment, Ethos wakes in the morning and walks “the frozen plate of [his] memory to the microwave.”) He and his wife, Catholic, have lost their children in an oceanside accident and are struggling to maintain the world they built as a family. Ethos responds by quitting his job, wandering around his own house like someone lost, barely capable of making his way through the day. Catholic responds with resentment towards Ethos, keeping him at arm's length after sleeping with the neighbor, Callisto, who, along with his wife, Lidia, seem to be the only friends the two have. The journey this couple takes through this novel rarely takes them physically to any location but their own gloomy home and the ocean, the scene of their tragedy. Their house is dark and swollen with shadows. Ethos makes inarticulate gestures to reach out to Catholic, but she in turn is bound up in her own pain and resentment. The loss of their children has decimated them both, but grief doesn’t have a rote path. Every book that doesn’t try to shoehorn complex, personal experiences of loss into the five steps of grieving is a mercy. Nao does little to push a cohesive narrative or propel her characters forward with plot structure, and the book is better for it. Instead, Ethos and Catholic feel their way along the darkened walls as their life, without consent, continues onward. Interruptions from their neighbors, a visit from Ethos’s mother. A planting of garlic bulbs leads to full-on dramatization of the Classical origin of seasons myth, complete with fully realized conversations between Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. Ethos erects wall-to-wall aquariums to house the dogfish that he buys, obvious attempts at replacing the lost children coiling of glass, fitting in the way they almost resemble their damp and shadowy owners. Death and profound loss are bleak subjects, but what is bleak is not always without humor. At one point, Ethos attempts to approach Catholic with a bouquet of flowers in his pants to replace the erection he cannot conjure. The entire section narrated by Ethos’s mother, Charlene, is dramatic and exasperating in the way only a mother’s visit cane be. Ethos and Catholic struggle to cover their fish with sweaters. At one point Ethos thinks that the “thing about suicide is, it’s a very selfish act. This is why only one should be done once in a lifetime.” The absurdity of the way that grief pushes the couple to their emotional and psychological limits isn’t just devastating, it’s often very funny. Everything in this book is framed in turns of life, death, and desire. Donald Hall once wrote in one of his many poems commemorating his grief over the loss of Jane Kenyon, his wife: “Lust is grief/ that has turned over in bed/ to look the other way.” The desire that mitigates the world between life and death is also what propels everything in this book. Ethos thinks, “my wife lies like a wound. The breeze lifts the curtain so it appears pregnant with air.” His grief is one of longing, where he sees his wife as a “window” into which he views the “shimmering undulating sea,” though he admits that it is not an insight, only “a literature” he stuffs “into her flesh.” Catholic attempts to root out her desires and end them. Though Ethos attempts to obstruct her, Catholic ties her tubes: “now that I can’t give birth anymore, I’m truly receding.” She finds herself disgusted by Callisto, with whom she had an affair in the aftermath of her children’s deaths, and his entreaties to want to “fuck everything.” By refuting all desire, she can disarm the life that has wounded her. There is a reckoning towards the end of the book. There is something like healing that happens as a result of forgiveness and acceptance, but, as with so many things, time is the only effective salve. The lives of these parents do not remain shattered, but they do remain broken. Fish In Exile is a book that never once attempts to explain itself, that immerses the reader in an aquatic underworld of pain and loss. Vi Khi Nao has created a meditation that splits open the numbing and disorienting problems of loss and mourning with language that breathes new life into an old suffering. This in turn brings about the kind of bewilderment one faces when the deeply familiar is made uncanny. In that, there is a kind of solace.