Donald Hall laughs at death


Brush with fame, brush with death

Donald Hall‘s newest collection, The Back Chamber, arrived in my mailbox the other day.

I was at the University of Michigan during the years Hall was teaching, but I never crossed paths with Ann Arbor’s preeminent poet (by that time, Anne Stevenson had returned to England and was only a legend there). The small university burg is where he met and married poet Jane Kenyon.

In the postwar years, he spent a lone year at Stanford, but that was enough to fall under the spell of Yvor Winters.  Long before my day, however.

I would meet the poet finally at the West Chester Poetry conference in Pennsylvania, about a decade ago.  And a few other occasions since – even interviewed him once.

By that time, the former U.S. poet laureate had already survived metastasized colon cancer, against the odds.  As he was recovering, Kenyon succumbed to leukemia.  In his famous poem of mourning, “Kill the Day,” he wrote: “How many times will he die in his own lifetime?”

Now he’s 82 years old.  I wrote about his receiving the National Medal of Honor in Washington earlier this year.

I remembered all these brushes as I leafed through the new volume.  He defeated death once, perhaps many times, and now he mocks it in “Apple Peaches,” riffing on the jump rope rhyme:

Apples, peaches,
Pumpkin pie.
How many years
Until I die.

Here are two of his variations:

Hostess Twinkies,
Wonder Bread.
How many springs
Until I’m dead?

The New York Times,
Le Monde, Der Sturm
How many breaths
Before the worm?

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