If you’ve read my previous reviews of Donald Hall’s books on this website, you will know I admire his work and his life, especially his tender marriage to Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995. I opened his new volume, Unpacking the Boxes, glad he was still writing, expecting to once again be captured by his honesty and poetic language. This is a memoir of his work of poetry, going back to high school (and earlier) and ending quite recently.
Hall is now in his early 80s, living on “the planet of antiquity,” he who expected to die around 50 as did his father. He has published 15 books of poetry and 14 prose volumes.
Upon reflection, this is not my favorite Donald Hall book, although it is still very worthwhile reading. Its readership may be somewhat smaller than that of his other memoirs
and books of poetry, as some of this is repeated territory.
That said, however, much is new, including some fascinating revelations into his early days as a poet and student and his life before, during, and after Jane. We learn a great deal about his teachers, his students, his first and
(especially) his second marriage, and his writing process.
We also learn what he thought of teaching, at the beginning and after returning it to years later. We read that he put
the collar of his and Jane’s dog, Gus, on Jane’s grave in New Hampshire, and no one has stolen it. Apparently, people left things for Jane on her grave for years, and then others came to visit and took them as a souvenir of his poet/wife.
I was glad to know Hall is still writing, and that he has a woman friend. I was glad to learn he had protested the Vietnam War and that he would have refused to shake President Bush’s hand when he was invited to read in Washington, D.C. a few years back. It’s charming to have Donald Hall admit that lots of his writing is bad, that it can never be revised enough to be published. Humility goes a long way with famous writers.
We learn that, for the most part, he loved teaching writing, and that Jane hated it (“[She] frequently said she would rather bag groceries”). However, he was eternally grateful that he could stop and move to New Hampshire to write full-time.
I had not fully realized how privileged he was. He attended an excellent prep school, Exeter Academy (he didn’t like it); he attended and graduated from Harvard University; he attended Oxford University (he mostly partied and wrote there). He did a private tutelage under Archibald MacLeish for a year. Hall began to be published early in his 20s, seriously, and continues to do so, and he has been friends with most of the important poets, American and quite a few British, of the last century. Among longtime friends are George Plimpton, Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich, and Galway Kinnell and others are more recent. He has been able to make a decent living from writing for more than 20 years.
In fairness, he has suffered enormously, too - about his own health, at the hands of callous teachers who publicly criticized his writing, and, for more than a decade, over Jane’s far-too-early demise. His mother and Jane’s mother died the same year as did his second wife.
He says of their happy marriage, “Joining myself to Jane, I became stable and clear-sighted, addicted to her and to work. From time to time during our twenty-three years I understood that her mental and moral clarity was greater than mine. Losing her, I lost the rudder to my ship, and sailed in circles on a dreary sea…” Happily, in this memoir, he admits he is no longer grieving over Jane daily. He visits her grave less often.
One thing that strikes me oddly, and is somewhat off-putting, is his candidness about things physical. Did I want to know that he had to wear a catheter after a minor stroke and about his other physical/mental difficulties of the last few years? That he bought condoms and had multiple lovers after Jane passed away? Did I want him to write the word “fucking”? In his memoirs of Jane’s dying, of course, he goes into intimate physical detail; this moves the narrative forward and helps the reader picture the entire process. In a way, it is comforting. Yet, here these admissions do not seem to be quite as appropriate.
Perhaps I am holding Donald Hall to too high a standard? It is good to know that poets are real people, after all, a position he has always maintained.
Nevertheless, I was delighted with most of the content. The familiar themes of baseball, hard work, illness, death, nature and Jane surface throughout – and the newly shared details of this dedicated wordsmith’s life are welcomed. Donald Hall remains a role model of a successful – and very gifted – writer.