Getting to the Bones

"When I was young, my language wore coats and shirts and trousers, neckties, bespoke shoes. In my lifetime as a writer I have cast off layer after layer of clothing in pursuit of nudity. 
[...] As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin." (Donald Hall, "In Praise of Paragraphs," A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, 2018, p. 11)

Donald Hall died in the summer of 2018, three months away from his 90th birthday. His essay collection, A Carnival of Losses, was published soon after. I savored this book and highly recommend. There are four sections:

1. Notes Nearing Ninety 

The essays in the opening half are reflections on aging, memories of growing up in the Great Depression as an only child, his fellowships at Oxford college, teaching English literacy at the University of Michigan, his divorce, meeting Jane Kenyon (she was his student in Ann Arbor), falling in love with Jane's poetry and ultimately falling in love with Jane, their relationship, resigning from his professorship in 1975 to embark on a life with Jane in his New Hampshire family farm house, how cool it was to see anthologies for sale in pharmacies back then. He writes about misplacing his dentures all the time, forgetting the names of friends and acquaintances, forgetting to open the garage door - "Open the Damned Door" is among my favorites.

2. The Selected Poets of Donald Hall

Eighteen essays recounting Mr. Hall's encounters with various writers and poets. I love how humble he was no matter whose legacy is in question. He did not initially like Robert Creeley's work, for example, and openly criticized his poetry in a review. Creeley was offended and the two avoided each other until Mr. Hall liked Creeley's new style twenty years later. "We met, we talked, we made up" (p. 85) and no more to it. Louis MacNeice was invited to read his poems in Oxford, when Mr. Hall was an impressionable young man in his twenties. While the meeting was "extraordinary," he writes, "I cannot remember a word he said" (p. 88). There is a very brief and hilarious essay on Allen Tate, of which Mr. Hall has nothing to note except that "Allen Tate always looked grumpy" (p. 100). What is most remarkable about these essays is the fact that Hall documents the human interactions he had with his peer writers and poets.

3. Necropoetics

This is a single analytical essay on the nature of death and elegy. Donald Hall recollects his memories of life with Jane and the beauty and influence of her work. He writes about Jane's early life, her development as a writer, the ordeal they lived through with her illness, the pain of having to live to old age without her. She had been gone for more than two decades, but was still very much a part of him all those years. I remember being introduced to both poets when I was in college, the only poem I still remember is Jane Kenyon's "Otherwise".

4. A Carnival of Losses

Mr. Hall recalls early memories of his grandfather and life on the farm. He muses about writing children's books, his children and grandchildren, "some guy" by the name of Steve Benson who peed beside him in a urinal and went on to write a poem about it, shopping for something gross at a butchery for his mother, his rugged cousin, post-war experiences at Harvard, baseball, his first romances, the history of Eagle Pond Farm, the importance of keeping his beard long, his hospitalization, getting back to life and writing letters, the glimmer of hope. 

Allison, Donald Hall's granddaughter, once took him aside at a family gathering and told him she would move into his house at Eagle Pond after him. He felt happy imaging the Hall generations that would go on to live there. It appears Allison did not keep her promise. In 2019 there was an estate sale and Eagle Pond Farm became Eagle Pond, Inc., and while no Hall family inhabits the farm, the estate is still around and has potential for writers residencies. I am not sure what Donald Hall would make of this, he would probably sit back in his recliner and laugh. He was not the kind of man to strain holding back a good laugh.



There is a free little library near where I live, painted red with a small glass door with a latch that feels like an old wood horn shape coat button. The library stands out on the lawn of an equally charming old house. It is full of self help books on writing or spirituality, those chunky cardboard textured children's books, and classics with worn out covers. We almost always make an effort to walk past it. Sometimes in the dark my husband shines the flashlight on his cell phone while I unlock the latch to peek in. Sometimes he holds my umbrella while I rearrange the books on the two tiny shelves to tuck another one in or take one out.

I like to imagine the owner of the library is someone who is in the process of writing a memoir, a gentleman of faith based on the religious books, a man based on the underlining and penmanship on the margins. He loves his family and is either an early riser or late sleeper, carving out private time at his desk to work on his craft. He has been looking for a story and now that he found it, he is looking how to write it. Whoever he may be, I enjoy the books on writing and the latest find was Telling Secrets, a memoir by Frederick Buechner. 

Buechner was a minister and theologian who had written many fiction and non-fiction books. I had never heard of him before and while this memoir has religious undertones I don't believe in, I read it with an opened mind. This is a book in three parts, which read like sermons or personal essays. In each part he reveals the struggles of his life, from home life to adventures in teaching, all revolving around a relatable theme of the search for love and acceptance. I liked how he meandered in and out of different facets of his personal story in each essay, which felt like listening or reading a letter from a friend. 

This memoir is only 106 pages and could be read in a sitting, but has accompanied me on my commutes the last few months. It felt like the kind of book that needs to be read slowly in pieces. I had wanted to write a thorough review of it but the words have left me. The following are some inspiring passages worth mentioning:

"To be at peace is to have peace inside yourself more or less in spite of what is going on outside yourself." (p. 25)

 "I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are your secrets. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has as much to do with the secret of what it is to be human." (p. 39)

"[W]hat I need more than anything else is people - other lives to bounce my life off of and share my life with, to give me life." (p. 57)

"I think our best dreams are always trying to move in that direction - homeward - and writing a novel, for me, is a form of dreaming, of deepest remembering." (p. 66)


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