PoetryDispatch No. 344 | April 7, 2011
“Like an old man whatever I touch I turn
to the story of death”
Editor’s Intro: The first thing that struck me when I saw this poem in a recent New Yorker was the title, the image: ‘green farmhouse chairs.’ How warm, comfortable…immediately reminding me (without even having read the first line or stanza of the poem) of an old, green, farmhouse chair belonging to my grandfather. A mostly empty chair at the table in the kitchen of my grandparents’ farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, where I spent many childhood summers alone with my Czech–spoken-only grandma, awaiting grandpa’s return from the city every weekend, where he worked to keep grandma and everything else going, the farm such a financial failure except that it kept grandma alive, in touch with her peasant roots: earth, animals, fresh milk, fruits, vegetables, a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Home cooking. Hearth. The heart of all that mattered to her.
The farm was eventually sold, pots and pans, a few pieces of furniture returned to the city of Chicago along with grandma, where she talked to herself unhappily in Czech at the kitchen stove in a basement bungalow and would never again be at home.
The odyssey of grandpa’s green farm chair begins on that Michigan farm in the 1940’s, and from there to a number of flats and apartments usually along Crawford Ave/Pulaski Rd. in a Chicago Czech neighborhood known then as ‘around Pilsen Park’, later called ‘the little village’, mostly Latino these days. Little of anything that once was, remaining. Including grandpa’s green chair (in need of repair, refinishing), which somehow found its way to my sad old garage here in the Wisconsin rural forty years ago, upon the death of both grandparents, and remains buried somewhere in the many layers of the past, a private history from kids’ old toys to rusted saws…a collection of sacred junk, ancestral mementoes a man can’t part with.
I am reminded of all this and more in Donald Hall’s poem. It was deliberate on the poet’s part: an assault of memories, a collage of feelings…that old New Hampshire white farmhouse of his great-grandfather (Benjamin Keneston) that enlivens so many lines of his poems, a place he loves to this day–the back chamber…old chairs and magazines…oil lamps, wooden skis…then throw in a reference to a number of artists, including Kurt Schwitters (the King of Collage) and don’t forget Henry Moore. Jumble it all up with baseball, LPs of dead poets reading, mother, grandchildren, and the love of your life, Jane Kenyon, who refuses to stay dead in your poems, continually giving you new life so alone and discarded in your own ailing, shuffling eighty- plus years, listening to time tick tock…rock away… — Norbert Blei
GREEN FARMHOUSE CHAIRS
1. In the back chamber, discarded things
of family jumble together,
nothing thrown away since we moved here
in eighteen sixty-five. I foresee
an auction of broken rocking chairs
painted farmhouse green, thick wooden skis,
oil lamps, my great-grandfather’s flannel
nightshirts, stacks of Youth’s Companion, lasts
for resoling shoes, toys, eight stacked beds …
2. I know you don’t listen, Kurt Schwitters,
but pitchers and catchers drive their cars
south in February, while Fenway’s
baseball lies under snow. You collect
yourself in the framed, deep-set collage
Linda and I discovered at Yale.
Idolatrous of this white farmhouse
since I was ten, in my ninth decade
I daydream that it burns to the ground
3. so that nobody will empty it.
My children comfort me with their care,
bringing five grandchildren to visit,
but none will settle in the country.
When I was twelve and we didn’t hay,
Kurt, the parlor radio broadcast
the Red Sox games. As Henry Moore carved
or modelled his sculpture every day,
he strove to surpass Donatello
4. and failed, but woke the next morning
elated for another try. At
eighty-five he dozed in a wheelchair.
I list the objects of this long house,
walking from room to room taking notes,
as if I controlled or determined
what happens to things after I die.
In June the peonies go rotten
and white old roses flourish briefly.
5. This wooden box beside my blue chair
was built by a cabinetmaker
to hold the toys of his first grandson,
my father, who died at fifty-two.
Inside it are LPs of poets,
dead and reading their work with gusto.
Let them melt. Baseball will inflate, Kurt,
into yearlong seasons under domes.
My mother made it until ninety.
6. All day I sit silent and alone
watching the barn or TV baseball,
usually grateful for the hours
of isolation’s slow contentment—
but I long for days when Linda comes.
I ask, ‘What will you do when I die?”
Iwill sit in a chair for two years.”
My grandchildren’s grandchildren will know
nothing of a grassy cellar hole.
7. Linda gave me the book “Kurt Schwitters,”
with murky photos from the twenties
of your Merzbaus, and ten collages
footnoted as “whereabouts unknown.”
Hitler’s war and our bombing wasted
Hamburg, where your rash and bountiful
inventions burned into ash. I think
of the lost Red Sox I read about
in the Boston Post: Babe Ruth long gone,
8. Ted Williams, Mel Parnell, Bobby Doerr,
Birdie Tebbetts … My wife Jane Kenyon
died at forty-seven, no longer
able to write. I imagine her
at sixty, outliving hot flashes,
writing in depression new poems
about an old man who cannot fuck.
She looks after him as he shuffles
into a bent and shrivelled other.
9. Like all shelters, Kurt—huts and mansions—
this house built two centuries ago
contained its end in its beginning,
in its anvil-forged spikes and timbers.
Benjamin Keneston, Aunt Nannie,
and Wesley Wells are dead. After hours
of Cheyne-Stokes breathing they went silent,
as useless and beyond self-pity
as broken rocking chairs painted green.
[from THE NEW YORKER March 21, 2011]
Donald Hall (born September 20, 1928) is an American poet. He was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (commonly known as the Poet Laureate of the United States) in 2006.
Hall was born in Hamden, Connecticut, the only child of Donald Andrew Hall, a businessman, and Lucy Wells. He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, then earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1951 and a B.Litt, from Oxford in 1953. Hall received an honorary PhD, Lit. from Bates College in 1991.
Hall began writing even before reaching his teens, beginning with poems and short stories, and then moving on to novels and dramatic verse. Hall continued to write throughout his prep school years at Exeter, and, while still only sixteen years old, attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where he made his first acquaintance with the poet Robert Frost. That same year, he published his first work. While an undergraduate at Harvard, Hall served on the editorial board of The Harvard Advocate, and got to know a number of people who, like him, were poised with significant ambitions in the literary world, amongst them John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and Adrienne Rich. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. During his senior year, he won the Glascock Prize that Koch had won 3 years earlier.
After leaving Harvard, Hall went to Oxford for two years, to study for the B.Litt. He was editor of the magazine Oxford Poetry, as literary editor of Isis, as editor of New Poems, and as poetry editor of The Paris Review. At the end of his first Oxford year, Hall also won the university’s Newdigate Prize, awarded for his long poem, ‘Exile’.
On returning to the United States, Hall went to Stanford, where he spent one year as a Creative Writing Fellow, studying under the poet-critic, Yvor Winters. Following his year at Stanford, Hall went back to Harvard, where he spent three years in the Society of Fellows. During that time, he put together his first book, Exiles and Marriages, and with Robert Pack and Louis Simpson edited an anthology which was to make a significant impression on both sides of the Atlantic, The New Poets of England and America. While teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan he met poet Jane Kenyon, whom he married in 1972. Three years after they were wed, they moved to Eagle Pond Farm, his grandparents’ former home in Wilmot, New Hampshire. Hall and Kenyon were profiled at their home in a 1993 PBS documentary, “A Life Together,” which aired as an episode of “The Bill Moyers Journal.”
In 1989, when Hall was in his early sixties, it was discovered that he had colon cancer. Surgery followed, but by 1992 the cancer had metastasized to his liver. After another operation, and chemotherapy, he went into remission, though he was told that he only had a one-in-three chance of surviving the next five years. Then, early in 1994, it was discovered that Kenyon had leukemia. Her illness, her death fifteen months later, and Hall’s struggle to come to terms with these things, were the subject of his 1998 book, Without. Another book of poems dedicated to Kenyon, Painted Bed, is cited by Publishers Weekly as “more controlled, more varied and more powerful, this taut follow-up volume reexamines Hall’s grief while exploring the life he has made since. The book’s first poem, ‘Kill the Day,’ stands among the best Hall has ever written. It examines mourning in 16 long-lined stanzas, alternating catalogue with aphorism, understatement with keened lament: ‘How many times will he die in his own lifetime?’ “
Hall served as a member of the editorial board for poetry at the Wesleyan University Press from 1958 to 1964. He has been closely affiliated with the Bennington College’s graduate writing program since 1994, giving lectures and readings annually.
To date, Hall has published fifteen books of poetry, most recently White Apples and the Taste of Stone (2006), The Painted Bed (2002) and Without: Poems (1998), which was published on the third anniversary of Jane Kenyon’s death. Most of the poems in Without deal with Kenyon’s illness and death, and many are epistolary poems. In addition to poetry, he has also written several collections of essays (among them Life Work and String Too Short to be Saved), children’s books (notably Ox-Cart Man, which won the Caldecott Medal), and a number of plays. His recurring themes include New England rural living, baseball, and how work conveys meaning to ordinary life. He is regarded as a master both of received forms and free verse, and a champion of the art of revision, for whom writing is a craft, not merely a mode of self-expression. Hall has won many awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Robert Frost Medal, and has served as poet laureate of his state. He continues to live and work at Eagle Pond Farm.
When not working on poems, he has turned his hand to reviews, criticism, textbooks, sports journalism, memoirs, biographies, children’s stories, and plays. He has also devoted a lot of time to editing: between 1983 and 1996 he oversaw publication of more than sixty titles for the University of Michigan Press alone. He was for five years Poet Laureate of his home state, New Hampshire (1984–89), and can list among the many other honours and awards to have come his way: the Lamont Poetry Prize for Exiles and Marriages (1955), the Edna St Vincent Millay Award (1956), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1963–64, 1972–73), inclusion on the Horn Book Honour List (1986), the Sarah Josepha Hale Award (1983), the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1987), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1988), the NBCC Award (1989), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry (1989), and the Frost Medal (1990). He has been nominated for the National Book Award on three separate occasions (1956, 1979 and 1993). In 1994, he received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for his lifetime achievement.
Hall was named the fourteenth U.S. Poet Laureate, succeeding Ted Kooser. He served from 1 October 2006, and was succeeded by Charles Simic the following year. At the time of his appointment, Hall was profiled in an Oct. 16, 2006 episode of The News Hour With Jim Leher. Hall was awarded the 2010 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
Donald Hall currently resides in Wilmot, New Hampshire, a small town in Merrimack County in the vicinity of fellow poet and author Maxine Kumin.
Bibliography – Poetry
- Fantasy Poets Number Four (1952)
- Exiles and Marriages (1955)
- The Dark Houses (1958)
- A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails (1961)
- A Roof of Tiger Lilies (1964)
- The Alligator Bride (1969)
- The Yellow Room: Love Poems (1971)
- The Town of Hill (1975)
- A Blue Wing Tilts at the Edge of the Sea: Selected Poems, 1964-1974 (1975)
- Kicking the Leaves (1978)
- The Toy Bone (1979)
- The Happy Man (1986)
- The One Day (1988)
- Old and New Poems (1990)
- Here at Eagle Pond (1992)
- The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993)
- The Old Life (1996)
- Without (1998)
- Two by Two (2000, with Richard Wilbur)
- The Painted Bed (2002)
- White Apples and the Taste of Stone (2006)
- Henry Moore (1966)
- Dock Ellis (1976)
- An Evening’s Frost (1965)
- Bread and Roses (1975)
- Ragged Mountain Elegies (1983)
- Andrew the Lion Farmer (1959)
- Riddle Rat (1977)
- Ox-Cart Man (1979)
- The Man Who Lived Alone (1984)
- I Am the Dog, I Am the Cat (1994)
- Summer of 1944 (1994)
- Lucy’s Christmas (1994)
- Lucy’s Summer (1995)
- Old Home Day (1996)
- When Willard Met Babe Ruth (1996)
- The Milkman’s Boy (1997)
- The Ideal Bakery (1987)
- Willow Temple (~2003)
- String too Short to Be Saved (1961)
- The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon (2005)
- Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry (2008)