Donald Hall's 'Essays After Eighty' Is an Unsparing Look at Extreme Old Age
To presume to review works of this level is farcical; we can only be overjoyed by their continued existence.
Essays After EightyPublisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 144 pages
Author: Donald Hall
Publication date: 2014-12
Donald Hall is 86 years old. Poems no longer come to him, but essays still do, here collected in Essays After Eighty, an unsparing look at extreme old age. This stage of life, Hall writes, is a place permanently other, its inhabitants "extraterrestrial".
Hall is unable to cook for himself, drive, or climb the stairs to sleep in the bedroom he once shared with poet Jane Kenyon. Yet every morning he settles in his chair, looks out the window, and writes.
When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.
Hall’s title essay dispenses writing advice more worthy than any exclusive writing program. Like Anne Lamott, whose Bird By Bird is a comfort to hopeful writers everywhere, Hall admits to dreadful first drafts repaired by extensive revisions. Some pieces in Essays After Eighty required 30 drafts, others more than 80. Finding the best work can take 60 tries. Hall so enjoys rewriting that he equates it to self-indulgence.
To Hall’s thinking, a successful essay requires contrasts, a point illustrated with examples from "Out the Window" and "A Yeti in the District". Invited to accept the National Medal of Arts, Hall travels from his rural New Hampshire home to Washington, D.C. While visiting the National Gallery of Art, Hall is subjected to infantile treatment by a thoughtless museum guard. When Hall and his companion, Linda Kunhardt, stop to look at a Henry Moore, the guard tells Hall Moore’s name. Hall, who wrote a book on Moore, says nothing. Later, the guard spies Hall emerging from the cafeteria. "Did we have a nice din-din?" He asks loudly.
At the medal ceremony, a photograph is taken of the grinning, heavily bearded Hall standing with President Obama. Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri makes vicious sport of the photograph, assuring readers Hall isn’t a "yeti ", then running a photo caption contest. In the ensuing media melee, no less than Sarah Palin feels called upon to defend Hall, albeit as a nameless, elderly cancer survivor. Showing great restraint, Hall only offers Petri wishes for a long life, albeit one with much facial hair.
Back home at his farmhouse, Eagle Pond, Hall returns to closely observing the natural world, whose beauties are a balm. In Mount Kearsarge’s shadow he sees robins, blue jays, thrushes, and orioles. Peonies and roses bloom, the tulips are "extravagant". He writes of speaking with Philip Roth, also nominated for a Medal. When he tells Roth he’s still writing, Roth responds: "What else is there?"
So Hall writes: of an ignorant museum guard, a tactless blogger, a fellow writer. Of the New Hampshire countryside’s immense grandeur.
"One Road" is a rare discussion of Hall’s first wife, Kirby. In 1952, the couple ventured across Europe in a Morris Minor, encountering roads often little more than rutted dirt tracks. The marriage was akin to those rudimentary roads, raw and barely negotiable, for the couple had married too young. Fifteen years later, they divorced. Kirby never remarried. In old age, her health failing, she reconciled with Hall. He kept her company as cancer sickened her. She died in 2008 at age 76.
"No Smoking" gleefully chronicles Hall’s cigarette habit, begun at age 40. Both of Hall’s parents smoked; lung cancer killed his father. Hall himself has survived bouts of colon and liver cancer. Through torched revisions, a flaming chair, and countless dropped butts, he remains unrepentant, spinning wickedly amusing arguments favoring tobacco. A drag quells a coughing fit. A sonorous voice aids poetry readings. An inbuilt explanation exists for eventual breathing difficulties. Perhaps the most viable argument, left unsaid, is that an 86-year-old man might be left to smoke in peace.
A lifetime at the desk was bound to result in "Physical Malfitness". Unlike fellow writers Ernest Hemingway, Andre Dubus, Joyce Carol Oates, Maxine Kumin, or even his wife, Jane, all proponents of demanding physical exercise (Hemingway, Dubus, and Oates are all runners), Hall was never an athlete. Until old age demanded it, his sole sports were sex and table tennis. Enter Pamela Sanborn, trainer to famous aged poets. Twice weekly, Sanborn coaches Hall through a modified workout. That Sanborn is helpful, attentive, and attractive helps her cause: Hall adores her. Together they work to preserve Hall’s limited strength and balance.
"Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr.Dr." contrasts increasing disability with a lifetime of fallacious awards. The first few honorary Ph.D.’s were flattering, but the glory faded as Hall sat through too many commencement ceremonies, watching top collegiate donors receive identical honors. He waves off the Pulitzer Prize, disgusted by its fishy nomination process. Appointment as United States Poet Laureate was "devastating", marked by intrusive media and a restaurant napoleon, courtesy of an admiring stranger.
The many medals, honors, and awards are contrasted with falls, injuries, and auto accidents. There are emergency room visits and stitches. There is a humiliating night spent in the drunk tank. After causing two head-on collisions, Hall surrenders his driver’s license.
Make what you will of an essay entitled "Death". "The days have narrowed as they must," Hall writes, echoing wife Jane’s poem "In The Nursing Home". He frets over Eagle Pond even as he accepts its eventual sale. His children, he writes, likely do not share his desire to live in rural isolation. Yet even a stranger feels bereft contemplating Eagle Pond’s dismantling.” Somebody will remove four hundred feet of bookshelves," And install what? A flat screen television? A home gym?
Jane Kenyon’s presence is everywhere in Essays After Eighty. The couple were married for 23 years, until her 1995 death from leukemia. Kenyon was 47 years old. Hall endured a period of intense pain, captured in two poetry collections and a memoir. Twenty years later, raw agony has become constant, aching loss: "I will mourn her forever", he writes in "A House Without a Door".
"Death" concludes with Hall’s wish to die at home, in the bed where Kenyon died.
Four more essays follow "Death". "On Rejection and Resurrection" looks at a lifetime of poetry submissions, both as writer and editor. "Garlic With Everything" is one man’s journey from modest culinary beginnings to omnivorousness to "widower food". "A House Without a Door" is another look at infirmity: the inability to safely traverse stairs, then the inability to safely traverse, period.
Age frowns on innovation: Hall writes by hand, depending on his assistant Kendel to deal with any necessary technology. There are small benefits: being wheelchaired through huge airports, preboarding. A long memory for a great deal of history.
The book concludes with "Remains", a meditation on nature, animals, and age. In a final piece of writing advice, Hall recommends all artists practice deep engagement with another art form. Not to practice it, but to learn.
At 144 pages, Essays After Eighty isn’t lengthy, yet gathers a lifetime between its pages, a world I fear is being lost. That world is dedicated to reading and writing, to solitude and the cultivation of a rich inner life. To presume to review works of this level is farcical; we can only be overjoyed by their continued existence. And, of course, to read them.