Donald Hall, WITHOUT.
Poems about the yearlong death and yearlong afterlife of his wife, fellow poet Jane Kenyon. I was unfamiliar with Hall’s style — turns out he’s of the ‘slightly mannered prose with seemingly arbitrary linebreaks’ school, which I resent and despise — so the first few poems irritated me. Two literary types alone in the woods with their dog and their separate rooms for writing poems in, and yes Hall uses the changing length of Kenyon’s hair to track the passage of years (shaven at the end of course), and if it weren’t for the linebreaks would these observations be worth anything, etc. The opening pages were tough going.
And then some line pierces you, and Hall’s gentle sense of humour and easygoing sexual candor show through, and the settings (hospital antisepsis; rural Eden) come vividly alive through a slow accumulation of detail, and the fucking linebreaks begin to seem a hair not arbitrary after all, not even a bit; and I’ve read the second half of the book (poetic letters to Kenyon written in the year of his life after her death) through tears of gratitude. The pain of the first half is horrific, gross: vomiting and chemicals and bodies failing. But they’re only bodies, awful as that sounds when I write it. The tale afterworld is something else, gentler and more awful. Hall wishes for his own death but his wish is refused, so he goes on as if he were fully alive and not now half of a human whole. He laughs with friends. He visits her grave. The midpoint of the book, ‘Without’ (first drafted just after her diagnosis, as it happens), is mannered hysteria, fury, helpless, all lowercase. It was familiar to me and difficult to bear. The rest are about being a man in a worse world. I have no opinion about ‘the verse,’ now. Hall’s book gutted me.