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July 2006

Poem by Donald Hall

Listen to 'Letter with no address' mp3 speaker (requires audio plugin)

Donald Hall, the U.S. Poet Laureate, is the author of 16 books of poetry, as well as fiction, essays, and children’s books. He attended Harvard and Stanford, and in 1957, he joined the University of Michigan faculty and remained at U-M until 1975. He ranked among the most respected and loved poets of his generation when, in 1994, his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, was diagnosed with leukemia. She died a year later, and his poems about her illness and death—collected in The Painted Bed and Without—are widely recognized as some of his most powerful work. The poems deal eloquently and honestly with the shatterings of grief, and the arduous task of living on. Their beauty and simplicity brought Hall’s work to the attention even of people who don’t normally read poetry.

He was named Poet Laureate, a one-year position of the Library of Congress, in May, 2006. Also this year, he released a book of selected poems, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, from which this recording is taken.



Your daffodils rose up
and collapsed in their yellow
bodies on the hillside
garden above the bricks
you laid out in sand, squatting
with pants pegged and face
masked like a beekeeper’s
against the black flies.
Buttercups circle the planks
of the old wellhead
this May while your silken
gardener’s body withers or moulds
in the Proctor graveyard.
I drive and talk to you crying
and come back to this house
to talk to your photographs.

There’s news to tell you:
Maggie Fisher’s pregnant.
I carried myself like an egg
at Abigail’s birthday party
a week after you died,
as three-year-olds bounced
uproarious on a mattress.
Joyce and I met for lunch
at the mall and strolled weepily
through Sears and B. Dalton.

Today it’s four weeks
since you lay on our painted bed
and I closed your eyes.
Yesterday I cut irises to set
in a pitcher on your grave:
today I brought a carafe
to fill it with fresh water.
I remember bone pain,
vomiting, delirium. I remember
pond afternoons.
                             My routine
is established: coffee;
the Globe; breakfast;
writing you this letter
at my desk. When I go to bed
to sleep after baseball,
Gus follows me into the bedroom
as he used to follow us.
Most of the time he flops
down in the parlor
with his head on his paws.

Once a week I drive to Tilton
to see Dick and Nan.
Nan doesn’t understand much
but she knows you’re dead;
I feel her fretting. The tune of Dick and me talking
seems to console her.
                                   You know now
whether the soul survives death.
Or you don't. When you were dying
you said you didn’t fear
punishment. We never dared
to speak of Paradise.

At five A.M., when I walk outside,
mist lies thick on hayfields.
By eight the air is clear,
cool, sunny with the pale yellow
light of mid-May. Kearsarge
rises huge and distinct,
each birch and balsam visible.
To the west the waters
of Eagle Pond waver
and flash through popples just
leafing out.
                     Always the weather,
writing its book of the world,
returns you to me.
Ordinary days were best,
when we worked over poems
in our separate rooms.
I remember watching you gaze
out the January window
into the garden of snow
and ice, your face rapt
as you imagined burgundy lilies.

Your presence in this house
is almost as enormous
and painful as your absence.
Driving home from Tilton,
I remember how you cherished
that vista with its center
the red door of a farmhouse
against green fields.

Are you past pity?
If you have consciousness now,
If something I can call
"you" has something
like "consciousness," I doubt
you remember the last days.
I play them over and over:
I lift your wasted body
onto the commode, your arms
looped around my neck, aiming
your bony bottom so that
it will not bruise on a rail.
faintly you repeat,
"Momma, Momma."

                                   Three times
today I drove to your grave.
Sometimes, coming back home
to our circular driveway.
I imagine you’ve returned
before me, bags of groceries upright
in the back of the Saab,
its trunk lid delicately raised
as if proposing an encounter,
dog-fashion, with the Honda.


Michigan Today Poetry Archive >

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