Thursday, January 19, 2012

Donald Hall at the Window

A friend, whose child recently married, said to me the other day, “Wow! I finally realized today that I am an adult. I have a son-in-law!” I thought but didn’t say, “My dear, you are not merely an adult. You are an old lady.”

Age tip-toes in, then ambushes us at certain moments: a child’s wedding, a birthday ending in zero. I recently turned 60. The American poet Donald Hall is 83, the age my father and grandfather were both when they died. So I read with affection and dread Hall’s lovely, cranky piece about getting old in this week’s New Yorker, “Out the Window: The View in Winter.”

Hall’s four-page “Personal History” is framed by a window—the window on his “mid-New Hampshire” farm at which the poet sits for long hours watching birds feed at a feeder. Dramatically slowed by age, he contemplates the sagging barn in the middle distance, a metaphor for himself, his life, his soul. It was built in 1865, he notes, “and I gaze at it every day of the year.” Today it “appears to heave like a frigate in a gale.”

Hall’s is a family farm and his window has served generations before him. “There are beds in this house,” he writes, “where babies were born, where the same babies died eighty years later.” Death is on the poet’s mind now in his 80s, when “new poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures.”

Hall works his way back through a family of deaths—to his mother who spent her last decade listening to the Red Sox on radio and reading Agatha Christie. “She said that one of the advantages of being ninety was that she could read a detective story again, only two weeks after she first read it, without any notion of which character was the villain.” He introduces us to his grandmother Kate, who lived to be 97 looking out the same New Hampshire window at Mt. Kearsarge. “As I gaze in the same direction,” Hall laments, “I see only a triangle of foothill, because softwood has grown so tall that it gets in the way.” We meet too his “New Hampshire grandfather,” whom Hall calls “my model human being.”

His own old age is sometimes a burden to Donald Hall. In one jarring moment he describes being wheeled through the National Gallery of Art by his companion and being patronized by a museum guard. After lunch, the guard approaches again: “He bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, ‘Did we have a nice din-din?’” Any simplistic thoughts of a peaceful fade into life’s sunset are shoved aside by that painful anecdote.

But Hall returns to his window at the end, where in the spring he will “watch the fat robins come back, blue jays that harass them, warblers, blackbirds, thrushes, orioles, redwings.” Flower will “erupt and subside.

“Whatever the season,” Hall begins in concluding, “I watch the barn. . . . Over eighty years, it has changed from a working barn to a barn for looking at.” Hall’s perspective is neither pained nor peaceful; there is nothing either distasteful or particularly hopeful about his old age. But it is a deeply human perspective, with plenty of poetry still in his heart, even if he chooses no longer to write in verse.

Here is a link to a summary of Hall’s article. You will have to pay New Yorker for the full version on line or else buy the hard copy at a newsstand.

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