Donald Hall (along with his late wife, Jane Kenyon) has long been one of my favorite poets, memoirists and literary people. I admire his writing, her writing, their relationship, and their generosity to other writers and to students. Hall, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, has come out with yet another book this spring: Eagle Pond. Not all the material is new. The volume includes the formerly published Seasons at Eagle Pond and Here at Eagle Pond, a previously published poem
(“Daylilies on the Hill”), and several uncollected pieces. Primarily essays in form, this book gives his readers more clues as to Hall’s background and strong values.
Mostly, in this book, he values community and the state in which he lives, New Hampshire. Here we part ways. He loves New Hampshire and all it stands for; he dislikes Vermont and some of what we stand for. (He especially dislikes what he labels Vermont’s consuming “condosaurus.”) Born in New Hampshire, but choosing to live in Vermont, I am at the polar opposite in my stately affections. In my native state, I perceive largely conservative politics and inadequate social services. But Hall, as always, writes convincingly and lyrically of New Hampshire’s merits and allows this reader to reconsider both states’ attributes and histories.
The book begins like this: “For thirty years, I have lived in the New Hampshire house, white clapboard and green shutters, where my grandmother was born in 1878, my mother in 1903.” This tells a lot about his core values: family values, the kind that keep families together and connected through photographs, stories and enduring love. Not surprisingly, the reader discovers that Hall is a good friend of poet/essayist Wendell Berry, another staunch proponent of family and community values.
In 1975, Hall came back, with Jane, to this New Hampshire farmhouse after he thought he couldn’t possibly afford to. He didn’t want to farm, so he saw no way to survive in rural New England. However, after Hall had taught on the college level for many years and published several volumes, he was able to bring his bride back with him.
The transition was smooth for him. “For me it was coming home, and it was coming home to the place of language,” writes Hall. He began writing in this house, in his early teens.
It was a bit less comfortable for Kenyon as she felt his ancestors everywhere in the house. She grew to love it as well, and with a cat and a dog, they lived an apparently peaceful, happy life in this large, elderly farmhouse. Although Hall has had cancer for many years (in remission), Jane, much younger, died earlier: of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) in 1995.
For Hall, one of the pleasures of place is its residents. The author writes of his fellow New Hampshirites: “People who remain here are self-selected partisans of place… They are un-American because they prefer land, place, family, friends, and culture to the possibilities of money and advancement… No one remains in rural New Hampshire for the money. Everybody living here hangs out a sign: I don’t care so much for money as I’m supposed to.” He praises the locals’ eccentricities – and often writes about them. Of all these qualities and attitudes, he heartily approves.
Not only does Hall enjoy his neighbors – much less pretentious and snobby than some academic types he once knew, often using colorful language – he enjoys almost everything about his familiar environment, even the aspects that aren’t exactly pretty. “Diversity persists, under assault. Bless our trailers, our junkers, and our rotten but redeemable old houses. The real red rooster of this countryside is the designer silo.”
Of course, Hall is speaking about rural New Hampshire. Other corners of the state, on the seacoast and in the greater Boston vicinity, have changed beyond recognition. I seldom saw farm animals in New Hampshire.
But this is not Donald Hall’s New Hampshire. His is a gentler, more old-fashioned, less materialistic kind of place which he wishes would never change.
In Eagle Pond, we learn a lot of new information about Hall’s life. He loves letters and he “loathes” the telephone. He collects acorns each fall. Hall enjoys living amongst “artifacts of the dead.” His personal motto might be: “While present-livers expend themselves in acceleration, speed canceling their bodies, let us spend quick lifetimes telling old stories while we stand on dirt thick with the dead.”
However, gratefully, Eagle Pond is not as sad or poignant as Hall’s books devoted to Jane Kenyon (Without: Poems and The Best Day, The Worst Day: Life With Jane Kenyon). Jane surfaces, of course, but in better days before the leukemia that took her much too quickly had arrived. These are the couple’s idyllic days of writing and critiquing, of attending church and community functions, of gardening, of walking with the dog, Gus.
Eagle Pond is a celebration of a life lived deliberately and lovingly. Both are highly recommended – to live this way, and to read this book.