Saturday, April 11, 2015

Essays after Eighty: Book Review

Published 2 December 2014.
Poet Donald Hall somehow manages to write in a way that is both ornery and lyric.

For decades, Hall published acclaimed poetry.  He even served for a year as the Poet Laureate. Then as he grew older, he found that poetry "abandoned" him.

Since writing is his way of being in the world, Hall began writing essays and publishing them in a variety of venues: The American Scholar, Slice, Playboy, New Letters, and the New Yorker.

I found it delightful to imagine sitting with him in his farm house in New Hampshire.

Hall describes the life of a poet, the women he's loved, his enjoyment of food and smoking, his age-related challenges, and the nature that surrounds him.

And while I would never ask him about his wild, scraggly beard, he does offer a compelling narrative about this beard and two previous ones.

I invite you to "sit" with Hall by reading his essays. Here are the titles of the essays collected here and a couple of quotes from each:


"Out the Window": "When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power" (p. 8).

"Over eighty years, it has changed from a working barn to a barn for looking at" (p. 11).

"Essays After Eighty":  "As I grew older--collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of the eighties, colliding into eight-five--poetry abandoned me" (p. 12).

"Essays, like poems and stories and novels, marry heaven and hell. Contradiction is the cellular structure of life" (p. 15).

"A Yeti in the District": [While reconnecting with Philip Roth at the White House after a 50 year gap]  "[He] glanced down at me in the chair. 'How are you doing?' I told him fine, 'I'm still writing.' He said, 'What else is there?'" (16).

"After dinner, when a taxi took my family back to the Willard, I completed my crowded day with customary aplomb. Stone sober, I fell down as I stepped out of the taxi, and a bellhop caught me midair."

"One Road": "We exclaimed at crucial moments of our journey [through Europe to Greece by car], but otherwise I don't remember that [my new wife Kirby and I] talked a great deal, and we never quarreled. It was as if we were not yet married" (p. 33).

"Kirby died of cancer in 2008 when she was seventy-six. I survived into my eighties, writing, and oddly cheerful, although disabled and largely alone. There is only one road" (p. 37).

"Thank You Thank You": "It's okay to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treats you as deathless, but you must not believe it....When poets announce that their own poems are immortal, they are depressed or lying or psychotic" (pp. 46-7).

"As I limped into my eighties, my readings altered, as everything did. Performance held up, but not body; I had to read sitting down" (p. 50).

"Three Beards": "A woman has instigated each beard, the original bush requested by my first wife Kirby" (p. 51).

"When I turned eighty and rubbed testosterone onto my chest, my beard roared like a lion and lengthened four inches" (p. 59).

"No Smoking": "[My dad] started smoking when he was fourteen and wasn't diagnosed with lung cancer until...he was fifty-one. Every time I write, say, or think 'lung cancer,' I pick up a Pall Mall to calm myself" (p. 61).

"My dear friend Alice Mattison twice bopped me on the face to dislodge a Kent" (p. 64).

"Physical Malfitness": "Sculptors and painters and musicians live longer than writers, who exercise only their fingers with pen or on a keyboard" (p. 71).

"With Pam [his personal trainer] I am able to exercise without boredom because I love her and talk to her all the time" (p. 77).

"Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr.": "Like an idiot, I was flattered at first to get honorary degrees" (p. 81).

"Like everyone at eighty, I assumed that I was a good driver" (p. 84).

"Death": "Least enviable are folks who die while alive, panicked as they rush, still conscious, from pink to blue. My father and my mother both died alive" (p. 93).

"At some point in my seventies, death stopped being interesting. I no longer checked out ages in obituaries....In my eighties, the days have narrowed as they must" (p. 90).

"On Rejection and Resurrection": "My generation assumed that the value of an artist proved itself not in contemporary fame but in durability" (p. 103).

"I expect my immortality to expire six minutes after my funeral" (p. 104).

"Garlic with Everything": "We ate what we had never eaten, in the vastness of China ending each day with a banquet of fifty dishes, concluded by a goose"(p. 113).

"As I enter my mid-eighties my appetite dwindles" (p. 115).

"A House Without a Door": "My problem isn't death but old age. I fret about my lack of balance, my buckling knee, my difficulty standing up and sitting down. Yesterday I fell asleep in an armchair. I never fall asleep in a chair. Indolence overcomes me every day" (p. 117)...."Friends die, friends become demented, friends quarrel, friends drift with old age into silence" (p. 117).

"Not everything in old age is grim. I haven't walked through an airport in years, and wheelchairs are the way to travel" (p. 119).

"Remains": "In summers when I hayed with my grandfather, fewer than half a million people lived in New Hampshire, and the land had begun its return to forest" (p. 127).

"One summer a big moose and a smaller one....walked with dignity under their elegant antlers, as new and as old as the returning eagle" (p. 134).

Related:

Movies about Mature Men Preserving Power

Novels about Mature Men Facing Death

At 80 the Past Is Now (poet May Sarton)

22 comments:

  1. I love it and him. time to look him up!

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    1. I found his work interesting. You might, too.

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  2. Beautiful excerpts from a fascinating man. Writing is one thing we can continue almost forever. How nice.
    Kimberly
    FiftyJewels.com

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    1. Writing is a great life-long pursuit.

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  3. An interesting perspective - looking down at life from the Eighties. I am almost there myself.

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    1. I like his views from late life: instructive and interesting.

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  4. What a fascinating man he has always been and still is. I need to reread some of his essays.

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    1. I am new to his work, but seeing others' familiarity makes me want to read more.

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  5. Love his quotes and passages. I bookmarked this because I know I'm going to be reading his works. Oh and of course pasting his wonderful quotes all over FB!

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    1. Those quotes provoke and equal mix of laughs and new perspectives -- sometimes at the same time. Thanks for your comment.

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  6. I'll have to check out his poems. Thanks for sharing them.

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    1. I have a retirement fantasy (one of many) where I read and write poetry all day. Could be a great late life journey. I admire poets immensely.

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  7. I must get this book. Looks like a learning experience is ahead of me.

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    1. Reading what experienced writers say about late life is super interesting to me. They are so articulate, and they help me see the road ahead--or should I say one of many possible roads since older adults are a very diverse group!

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  8. What a fascinating person. It must have been sheer delight sitting down with him for a chat in his farm house. What wisdom lies hidden within that ol' beard.

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  9. What a fascinating person. It must have been sheer delight sitting down with him for a chat in his farm house. What wisdom lies hidden within that ol' beard.

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    1. I felt it an honor to "sit" with him for a time and see through his eyes. So interesting.

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  10. "I expect my immortality to expire six minutes after my funeral"- What practical wisdom!! Useful review. Thanks for the introduction.

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    1. That was a witty and wise observation by Hall. Finding joy in the moment is paramount, given that life is fleeting. Thanks for being part of a joyful moment here on the blog -- among me, you and Donald Hall!

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