Growing Older: A Poet’s Perspective

Food for thought this morning from Jane Gross of The New York Times. NASMM Senior Move Managers® are on the front lines of their clients’ losses. Sigh. 

Growing Older, Not Happier

Donald Hall’s Frank Collection of Essays About the Tarnish of the Golden Years

JAN. 19, 2015 By JANE GROSS

20SCIB-blog427In 2001, Donald Hall, just 70 and yet to be named the nation’s poet laureate or to receive the National Medal of Arts, published a poem titled “Affirmation” in The New Yorker. It began: “To grow old is to lose everything.”

At the time, Mr. Hall hadn’t lost everything — that was still to come.

The evidence rests in the latest of his 33 books, divided between poetry and prose, this one called “Essays After Eighty” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). It is a slim volume, alternately lyrical and laugh-out-loud funny, in which Mr. Hall, now 86, describes the “unknown, unanticipated galaxy” of the very old, so unimaginable to his younger self.

In these 14 essays, Mr. Hall plumbs the indignities, condescensions and terrors of advanced age, along with musings on beards (he has had three), women (two wives, many dalliances), smoking (cigars, Chesterfields, Kents, marijuana), poetry readings, rejection letters, old houses and the creatures who take up residence there, bad food (Wonder bread, Spam), and the view from his window.

But mostly, these essays are about a “ceremony of losses”: giving up his driver’s license, eating Stouffer’s frozen dinners (“widowers’ food”), noting his many brushes with mortality. And the terrible twist that his beloved second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, should die of leukemia at 47 two decades ago, but in the book she remains, very much alive and still in the present tense.

The mounting subtractions in Mr. Hall’s life include the inability to write poetry. “Prose endures,” he writes. “Poetry abandoned me. The sound of poems is sensual, even sexual. That requires a blast of hormones.” When testosterone departed, we learn, so did poetry.

Instead, Mr. Hall has turned compulsive list making into a sort of poetry. Over uncounted years, contentedly looking out the window of his New Hampshire home, he unspools what he sees season by season. Peonies like “feathery soccer balls.” Squirrels like “tree rats with the agility of point guards.”

This is no Hallmark card, though, and readers looking for golden sunsets and promises that age brings wisdom will be disappointed. For the treacle that usually infuses treatises on aging, he has substituted a seductive frankness and bracing precision. Mr. Hall falls, and with specificity: tripping over an ottoman and cracking a rib and blackening an eye. Taking a tumble in the driveway and ending up in the emergency room, where 147 specks of gravel are picked from his face with tweezers.

Mr. Hall outs himself as a sharp-tongued curmudgeon, annoyed by a computer with a mouse “that isn’t a mouse” and an “iThing,” never further identified. He growls at age-segregated communities, “old-folks storage bins” and “for-profit-making expiration dormitories,” and rattles off two dozen of them.

He assaults “fatuous” euphemisms for dying, 13 in all, unwilling to rest in peace, meet his maker, cross over or give up the ghost. He wants the bad news straight up, no concealing “how we gasp and choke, turning blue.”

“I’ve never been around when somebody, in the middle of a sentence or a sandwich, had the luck to pitch over dead,” he writes.

Until his own time comes, the indignities of age continue to pile up. “Did we have a nice din-din?” a museum guard asks as Mr. Hall and a companion exit the cafeteria.

On the other hand, some guards allow him to scrutinize masterpieces from the forbidden side of the velvet rope. And his days pass in comforting sameness, at the family farm where he and Ms. Kenyon fled academia in 1975, trading tenure and medical insurance for the “double solitude” of writing.

He turns on the coffee. He glues in his teeth. He takes four pills and Metamucil. He wipes the residue of the last from his prodigious beard.

He puts a brace on his buckling knee, then alternates looking out the window, attending to his voluminous correspondence with distant friends, writing essays and napping.

In the summertime, there are Red Sox games on television virtually every night.

Then he takes out his teeth, goes to bed, and the next day begins.

Photo Credit: Patricia Wall/The New York Times

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