By the time Donald Hall died Saturday at 89, the celebrated poet had become a shrewd chronicler of old age and its indignities. He kept working until the end. “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety,” which comes out July 10, was his last book, and it’s a freewheeling essay collection that’s a fitting coda to a distinguished career.
Hall’s previous book, “Essays After Eighty,” created a stir with its frank, dryly humorous perspective on debility and death. This collection of more than 70 short ruminations on old age, poets he has known and stray memories is looser and more anecdotal, and makes it clear that Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, had aged more gracefully mentally than physically. Hall commented, “In a paragraph or two, my prose embodies a momentary victory over fatigue.”
He set up “Notes Nearing Ninety” with a page of trenchant one-liners: “You are old when someone mentions an event two years in the future and looks embarrassed,” he wrote. “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.”
Among his reminiscences, Hall exposed a few shameful memories. He regretted having called his 3-year-old son a bad boy for interrupting his work, and he was appalled that he confirmed a former Harvard roommate’s Communist Party affiliation during an FBI job background check in the height of McCarthyism. More risible gaffes: Repeatedly forgetting to open the garage door before backing out his car; constantly losing his dentures.
Hall wrote poetry until 2010, and mingled with many of the best. He recalled arguments with an immodest William Faulkner over freeing Ezra Pound, whose poetry he loved despite his “madness and his fascism.” He remembered James Dickey as “the best liar I ever knew,” and Allen Tate looking perpetually grumpy. Repeatedly, he wondered whose work will survive. About Richard Wilbur, who died at 96 in 2017, he wrote, “In his work he ought to survive, but probably, like most of us, he won’t.”
Hall’s whole-animal approach to writing — leaving no parts unused or wasted — recalls the poem he turned into his most popular children’s book, “Ox-Cart Man,” in which nothing is wasted in a farmer’s repetitive cycle of manufacture and market. Much in this collection is familiar, including stories about his grandparents’ 1803 New Hampshire house at Eagle Pond Farm, owned by his family since 1865. This is where he retired from teaching in 1975 with his second wife, Jane Kenyon, and where they lived in blissful “double solitude,” devoted to each other and their poetry until her death from leukemia at age 47, in 1995. He was ecstatic to learn that his granddaughter Allison intended to move into the family homestead after he was gone.
Hall, who spent decades exploring the poetry of death, was sanguine about mortality. In “A Carnival of Losses,” he considered life’s roller coaster between desolation and joy. He wrote, “As a grandfather approaches his ninetieth birthday, he remembers his mother’s in 1993. Although he lacks great-grandchildren, he chugs on, he chugs on, he chugs on, understanding that eventually each locomotive reaches its roundhouse.”
Hall may have reached his roundhouse but not before bequeathing readers with this moving valedictory gift.
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
By Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin. 224 pp. $25