REVIEW: A Great Writer Ponders Death, With Despair and Comedy

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A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pp.

By Joan Silverman

Esteemed poet and author Donald Hall died last month, at 89, only days before his final book’s publication. While the subject of death preoccupied much of his later work, Hall’s sense of humor also came prominently to the fore. Several years ago, Hall (mistakenly) thought he was dying, and announced his imminent death to anyone who called. When he managed to survive his sundry ailments, he turned the scenario into an occasion for self-mockery. Suddenly he spoke of “the first day of my latest dying,” and of how “my death began to recede.”

This blend of melodrama, comedy, and despair offers a fitting preview of his new memoir, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. In these essays, Hall laments the insults of old age and exploits their humor. He ruminates, tells stories, relates family history, and circles back to the great love and loss of his life, the late poet Jane Kenyon, his wife of two decades. From this patchwork of shards and vignettes, most only a page or two apiece, emerges the image of a singular rebel, a literary icon who wrote some 50 books of poetry and prose and served as US Poet Laureate.

As the book opens, Hall is sitting in the living room at Eagle Pond Farm, the New Hampshire homestead where his family has lived since the Civil War. He looks out on the rural landscape that was a frequent focus of his writing. Hall lives alone, largely solitary, with several helpers who come and go, and the occasional visitor. An avid Red Sox fan, he watches baseball half of the year, and follows politics on MSNBC. He dictates letters to an assistant, naps, eats Lean Cuisines. Like many at his age, he fixates on bodily functions, and is beyond caring about niceties. 

“Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?” he says.

So it is that Hall chronicles all manner of escapades and encounters from his long and varied life. In a chapter on poets, he recounts some of the luminaries he knew, including Seamus Heaney, E. E. Cummings, and James Dickey. About Allen Tate, he offers two sentences on an otherwise blank page: “My recollections of some poets are brief. Allen Tate always looked grumpy.” Hall appraises his friendship with James Wright; his bond with Robert Creeley, which grew out of a feud; and the kindness of Richard Wilbur when Hall was an undergrad: “Seventy years ago, he was generous to talk to an incipient poet ripe with ambition and incompetence.”

Much of the book has a breezy, meandering quality, as Hall roams through his vast personal and poetic archive. He delights in telling tales out of school, as in the case of a chapter from one of his early books that was rejected, then later accepted, by The New Yorker. As he notes, Hall was instructed to never let on about this incident.  

So, too, Hall proves to be an equal opportunity sniper, making himself the target of his own attacks. In one piece, he calls his younger self to task for having once berated his three-year old-son, in a fit of impatience; in another, he regrets having squealed on a former Harvard roommate, a communist, during the McCarthy era. 

While he opines on a range of topics — sex, magazines, sports, teaching — few match the depth and passion of his writings about his wife. Her death from leukemia, at 47, prompted Hall to write one of the acclaimed modern grief chronicles, his book of poetry, “Without.” Subsequently, Hall was invited to read at various medical schools as the book became a resource for health professionals. 

Few poets or authors continue to write into their late eighties, leaving Hall to invent the rules as he went along. As a collection, this book consists largely of episodes and oddments — the “notes” of the book’s subtitle. Yet as we learn, Hall’s notes are not just impromptu musings; his work famously went through dozens of drafts and revisions. The result is a gathering of meticulous, if at times indecorous, prose on topics large and small, funny, sad, outspoken — a liberating last hurrah.

On the cusp of 90, Hall remained crusty and cheerful, no longer anxious about the fate of his ancestral home. At a recent birthday party, Hall’s granddaughter took him aside and disclosed her plan to take over the farm after his death. 

“She didn’t ask me if she could live here,” Hall says, “she told me she would. And these were the happiest words I ever heard, a joy that depended on dying, therefore an inevitable, even a reliable, joy.”

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays, and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News.