Lucy Cheseldine shares personal reflections on the loss of the American poet, editor, and critic Donald Hall (1928-2018).
School of English
University of Leeds
I had moved from a plane, to a car, to a coffin; from Manchester, to Boston, to a New Hampshire funeral parlour. The man I stood over, eighty-nine, was nothing like the pictures on his poetry book-covers. His face had a bluish hue, with veins thick as rope pushing out of his temples; how lively death is, so he was always telling us. Donald Hall, the man I had been corresponding with via hand-written letters, then e-mails typed by his secretary and distant cousin, was lying in front of me, stone cold and about to be buried in a black dinner jacket and a tie-dye peace t-shirt, with a huge opal ring dangling off his emaciated fingers. All I could feel was a deep lack of reality. We had arranged to meet and talk about his poetry, the poetry that had first brought me to tears, then to many sleepless nights and dreams of the ghosts of rural New England, then to a PhD. I would never hear his voice, even though it was played on tape at the funeral, I would never sit by the Glenwood Stove on his Grandfather’s farm and ask him why he wrote incessantly about his own life, why he read Geoffrey Hill and numerous other English poets and promoted their works in America, why he quit his tenure and moved here, to absolute locality to communicate something more profound to the rest of the world. I think the answer to this last question is what brought me here, to his final ceremony and his work that lives on.
His words are of loss and death rejoiced in through the story of leaves that whirled through the generations who lived at Eagle Pond Farm, where Hall lived and wrote until his death. They are words that cut through the nonsense of urbanity and alienation to talk straight about routine and hard work and devotion; words that brought a region to life against its erosion by machinery and homogeneity. His words cut deep at the same time as they embody absence. After the funeral, I sifted through his archive at the University of New Hampshire. They were packed tight in rows and rows of unsorted boxes. Eventually I came across the drafts I was looking for: Life Work. I read over the passages in which Hall, or Don as he became known to me, described haying and scything on the farm with his grandparents. I lingered over the subtle changes of word and rhythm in these passages; speeds and sounds that spoke without the need for meaning, of the past and its place in the present, of the stability that leads to a future, even without the land, yet because of the land, and because of Don’s words. This is not a platform for my research, which in itself attempts to move towards an embodiment of the experience of reading Don’s work rather than a soulless critical exposition. Instead it is my own plea to draw you into an elegy, the sort of elegy Don wrote best; inviting, fulfilling, and moving (in all senses of the word). To add experience to the words I study on the page was my privilege given, earned, and taken with openness; for this, and for Don, I am beyond grateful.