For the reader boiling in triple-digit SoCal heat at the end of the summer, Donald Hall's "The Back Chamber: Poems" arrives like a sudden cloudburst and shower of cooling rain. Again Hall takes readers into his New Hampshire, a realm of "fiddleheaded ferns, lilacs purpling / trilliums, apparition of daffodils" and soft breezes where "my grandfather and I," he recalls in "Maples," "with Riley the horse, / took four days to clear the acres of hay / from the fields on both sides of the house."
A former U.S. poet laureate, Hall has always had this elemental power — to vividly evoke his particular New England climate and geography so that it can't be mistaken for any other — but what is more unexpected in this new collection of poems, his 16th, is passion. Eros and the particulars of skin-on-skin are found on nearly every page. Furtive teens in "After Prom" pause to think of "parents, preachers, pregnancy" before plunging in; the poem "Nymph and Shepherd" recalls the metaphor of orgasm as a little death — le petit mort — in its opening line: "She died a dozen times before I died."
Now, in his early 80s, Hall hasn't surrendered sex and desire as topics appropriate only for a poet half his age. No, these poems hardly sound like the words of an old man who's fantasizing about something he can no longer enjoy. "For an hour we lie twining / pulse and skin together," he writes in "Love's Progress," and there's an immediacy there that makes it feel far from being some distant memory. It might have happened to him six months ago, maybe even yesterday.