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Book review: Donald Hall's poems in 'The Back Chamber'

The former U.S. poet laureate captures universal emotions as he summons passion and loss as experienced in the lush but sometimes austere environs of his home in New Hampshire.

September 10, 2011|By Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times

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.

In an earlier book he wrote of the cycles of the seasons — a natural repetition that never grows dull. That same perspective is true in "The Back Chamber," which revisits themes and people he has always written about, yet the treatments here are never dull. He dwells on his family, on baseball, on the collections of odds and ends he keeps to remind him about his ancestors. Present everywhere too is his Jane, his beloved wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia at 47. Her presence is still so vivid in Hall's life, 16 years after her death in 1995, that even their old dog can't believe, in the poem "Searching," that she's really gone:

He sniffs at her armchair

And listens for her talking,

And climbs the stair

To poke an inquiring nose

Under a hamper's lid,

For Jane, he must suppose,

Returned and hid.

The poor animal is baffled by this loss. Elsewhere another baffled figure is the speaker in the poem "Ruins," grieving over a relationship's sudden end: "It is unthinkable that we will not touch each other again." He struggles to come to terms with it and can't. The only thing in front of him, outside his window, are high banks of snow and the flapping of bats as they escape from a barn. A bleak scene. The meaning is obvious: the end.

Ignore the heat and imagine instead this speaker's view of snow on a clapboard house and "frozen meadows of snow" — it's a chilled landscape that also stands in for the speaker's ruined, unhappy heart.

nick.owchar@latimes.com

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