“Old age is a ceremony of losses,” Donald Hall writes from what he calls the “unknown, unanticipated galaxy” of antiquity. “Essays After Eighty” is his latest poignant, perspicacious and dryly amusing book — volume number 33, by my reckoning — of what Hall acknowledges has been a lifelong, ongoing autobiography penned in verse and prose.
In these 14 essays, Hall, a former poet laureate of the United States, broaches difficult subjects such as debility and death with the same unapologetic, unfiltered aplomb with which he continues to turn to cigarettes: “Every time I write, say, or think ‘lung cancer,’ I pick up a Pall Mall to calm myself,” he comments.
“At my age I feel complacent about death, if sometimes somber, but we all agree that dying sucks,” Hall writes. “My problem isn’t death but old age,” he adds. “I fret about my lack of balance, my buckling knee, my difficulty standing up and sitting down.” Still, he comments, “Not everything in old age is grim. I haven’t walked through an airport for years, and wheelchairs are the way to travel.”
Reading Hall is comforting and nurturing, repetitive in a good way, like returning to a restaurant for a favorite dish and appreciating different subtleties in the seasoning. By his own admission, Hall has reworked and retold his stories so often they’re bound to be familiar to many readers, though his angle has changed over the years. Looking back on his teen summers haying with his maternal grandfather on the family’s New Hampshire farm, for example, he realizes that his grandfather, then in his 60s and early 70s, wasn’t really so old, “but of course I thought he was old.”
Many of Hall’s books, including parts of this one, chronicle life on Eagle Pond Farm, named by his great-grandfather for the eagles that used to feed there, disappeared for a century and now are back. Hall and his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, moved to New Hampshire in 1975 for a life of “double solitude” and poetry. He revisits his bold decision to trade tenure and medical coverage at the University of Michigan for a pared-down existence of writing and love, which “made for the best years of our existence.”
Hall’s alluring, inspirational hominess is epitomized in books including “String Too Short to Be Saved,” “Seasons at Eagle Pond” and “The Painted Bed,” which evoke a yearning for a simpler, less cacophonous existence — channeling Thoreau but without the physical labor or all the accounting.
Just as “Life Work,” about the importance of finding meaningful toil, and “Without,” poems written after Kenyon’s death, are helpful guides for the newly employable or bereft, “Essays After Eighty” is an insightful sneak preview for those rocketing toward the galaxy of antiquity. Subjects include surrendering his driving license at 80 (after two accidents); living on microwaved “widower food . . . always Stouffer’s”; overcoming a lifelong antipathy to exercise to stave off full-time wheelchair-dependency; and re-connecting with his first wife in her final days.
It’s not all bleak. Hall pushes back, pugnaciously defending his smoking, his “monumental” unkempt beard, which he intends “to carry into the grave,” and his disdain for euphemisms about death: “It is sensible of me to be aware that I will die one of these days. I will not pass away.”
“Out the Window,” the book’s beautiful lead essay, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 2012, is a moving portrait of the poet as an octogenarian. But, as Hall acknowledges in an instructive follow-up essay that describes his writing process, what makes that piece effective is his decision to include “nasty or ridiculous”counterpoints to the bucolic scenes outside his farmhouse window: In Washington to receive a National Medal of Arts , Hall meets President Obama, who hugs his shoulder and bends to speak several sentences into his left ear, “which is totally deaf.” When he visits the National Gallery of Art in a wheelchair pushed by a younger companion, a guard approaches and explains that the sculpture they’re looking at is by Henry Moore. “I wrote a book about Moore and knew him well,” Hall thinks but doesn’t say. As they leave the museum cafeteria, the guard asks, “Did we have a nice din-din?” It’s a glaring example of the outrageous condescension old people habitually endure.
“Essays After Eighty” is a treasure because Hall avoids self-pity, balancing frankness about losses with humor and gratitude. He turns his focus to the ebb and flow of nature’s seasonal cycle, at the heart of much of his work, including hispoem-turned-children’s book, “Ox-Cart Man,” which he says is his most likely stab at literary immortality.
“When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing,” he writes. “It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers.” Although poetry has “abandoned” him — along with testosterone — “prose endures.” Hallelujah for that.
McAlpin reviews books for The Washington Post, NPR and the Los Angeles Times.
ESSAYS AFTER EIGHTY
By Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 134 pp. $22