Donald Hall (1928-2018): A Tribute

Image: Steve K. McCoy

At times we are deeply touched by something that seems to sneak up on us catching us off guard. The ordinary, the mundane, or the story of another person’s journey. The heart is capable of connecting before the mind dissects and deciphers, and before the questioning has an opportunity to enter in. We’re affected and not quite sure why, yet we allow the feelings to flow through us awakening an emotion that, just a moment before, wasn’t even below the surface. Such times feel tender with magic. They remind us of our sameness, and of that which is innate.

I was late in my introduction to former US Poet Laureate, Donald Hall. Late only in time, yet perfectly aligned with the potency of the arrival of his books. It was 2014 when I picked him up after seeing him on the cover of the November/December Poets & Writers Magazine. Right away there was something about him that drew me in. Not sure if it was his scruffy bearded self or his age. [I was working in hospice at that time, which created in me a soft spot for time-wrinkles and the gray of time.] Whatever the case, I was touched and knew he would add a layer to my life. I was right.

Hall was known for his poetry of course, yet I tore through his memoirs: Essays After Eighty, Unpacking the Boxes, and The Best Day, the Worst Day. I wanted to know about him. I wanted to read his story to see how he journeyed through time and space. We often connect through stories, to the ways of the ordinary and the mundane. This is why we tell them, and why we pass them down like keepsakes or clothes to be worn by the next person. Stories are rich with life-recipes of our pain and humor, and of love and loss. This is what moves me. This is the way to the soul of another, so I read that I might enter in as much as he allowed.

Hall’s work was authentic and digestible. He spoke with an everyday language yet was able to touch deep parts of life, such as the death of his wife, Jane Kenyon, who died in her late forties of leukemia. One cannot go through that and come out the same. One cannot read The Best Day, the Worst Day and not grow curious of their own fate, or how they might be with another’s journey through dying, and then death. Hall found a way to move through, come out, and continue forward. His being a writer allowed this. Writers often write their way through life, healing inside their own stories, or battling through them—both real, both relevant.

Donald Hall died Saturday, June 23rdat the age of 89. He leaves nothing behind and yet he leaves everything. In Essays After Eighty, Hall spoke humorously about life in his eighties and where he thought his writing might go, or how much more writing he had in him before death would come. He was comfortable with the word death. Too, he was friendly with his own curiosity about dying. Age has a way of doing that. With time comes wonder as we realize we have lived more years than we have before us. We grow content with the now while hoping for a bit of ease when we exit. I hope he had ease.

I take this moment to honor the way of his writing, and to celebrate a life lived well, and with awe and wonder even in times of pain. May his spirit rest still upon his beloved Eagle Pond Farm.

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