Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Frolicking Holsteins and adultery: another post about the great New England poet, Donald Hall

A friend, having spotted the poem “Names of Horses” at the bottom of the homepage of this blog, has very kindly sent me a CD of New Englander Donald Hall reading 21 of his own poems. (I also wrote about Hall's wonderful poem "Wolf Knife" here.) Unlike many poets, he reads his own stuff quite brilliantly. The quality of the poems is extraordinary, and they are (mercifully) unmodern in outlook – Hall is morally serious, deals with the great themes of life, evidently has no desire to show off, and makes no concessions to modern liberal sensibilities.  I was particularly struck by the unfashionable attitude to adultery displayed in “When the Young Husband”, which was published in The Atlantic in 1993:

When the young husband picked up his friend's pretty wife
in the taxi one block from her townhouse for their
first lunch together, in a hotel dining room
                  with a room key in his pocket, 
midtown traffic gridlocked and was abruptly still.
For one moment before Klaxons started honking,
a prophetic voice spoke in his mind's ear despite
                  his pulse's erotic thudding: 
"The misery you undertake this afternoon
will accompany you to the ends of your lives.
She knew what she did, when she agreed to this lunch,
                 although she will not admit it; 
and you've constructed your playlet a thousand times:
cocktails, an omelet, wine; the revelation
of a room key; the elevator rising as
                the penis elevates; the skin 
flushed, the door fumbled at, the handbag dropped; the first
kiss with open mouths, nakedness, swoon, thrust-and-catch;
endorphins followed by endearments; a brief nap;
               another fit, restoration 
of clothes, arrangements for another encounter,
the taxi back, and the furtive kiss of good-bye.
Then, by turn: tears, treachery, anger, betrayal;
               marriages and houses destroyed; 
small children abandoned and inconsolable,
their foursquare estates disestablished forever;
the unreadable advocates; the wretchedness
               of passion outworn; anguished nights 
sleepless in a bare room; whiskey, meth, cocaine; new
love, essayed in loneliness with miserable
strangers, that comforts nothing but skin; hours with sons
              and daughters studious always 
to maintain distrust; the daily desire to die
and the daily agony of the requirement
to survive, until only the quarrel endures.
              Prophecy stopped; traffic started.
Ah, disapproval! I was wondering where you'd got to.

I’m not sure I’ve ever come across an American poet better at describing the sights, sounds, smells and rituals of farm life in the era before Big Agriculture swept all before it (Robert Frost, I suppose).  “Great Day in the Cows House”  does for cows what “Names of Horses“ does for, well, horses. As Louis Begley writes in an appreciation of Hall which can be found at (here): “One doesn’t know, reading the animal poems, whether to wonder more at Hall’s command of the rich specific vocabulary of husbandry or his empathy”. You can read the whole of this longish poem here. Meanwhile, here’s the last third of it:
Late in October after the grass freezes
the cattle remain in their stalls, twice a day loosed
to walk stiff-legged to the watering trough
from which the old man lifts a white lid if ice.
Twice a day he shovels ensilage into their stalls
and shakes hay down from the loft, stuffing a forkful
under each steaming nose.
In late winter,
one after one, the pink-white udders
dry out as new calves swell their mothers’ bellies.
Now these vessels of hugeness bear, one after one,
skinny-limbed small Holsteins eager to suck
the bounty of freshening. Now he climbs to the barn
in boots and overalls, two sweaters,
a cloth cap, and somebody’s old woolen coat;
now he parts the calf from its mother after feeding, and strips the udder clean,
to rejoice in the sweet frothing tonnage of milk. 
Now in April, when snow remains on the north side
of boulders and sugarmaples, and green
starts from wet earth in open places the sun touches,
he unchains the cows one morning after milking
and lopes past them to open the pasture gate.
Now he returns whooping and slapping their buttocks
to set them to pasture again, and they are free
to wander eating all day long. Now these wallowing
big-eyed calf-makers, bone-rafters for leather,
awkward arks, cud-chewing lethargic mooers,
roll their enormous heads, trot gallop, bounce,
cavort, stretch, leap and bellow -
as if everything heavy and cold vanished at once
and cow spirits floated
weightless as clouds in the great day’s windy April. 
When his neighbor discovers him at eighty-seven, his head
leans into the side of his last Holstein;
she has kicked the milkpail over, and blue milk drains through floorboards onto the manure pile in the great day.

I’ll leave you with the whole of his bracing “Poem Beginning with a Line of Wittgenstein”:
The world is everything that is the case.
Now stop your blubbering and wash your face.
"When the Young Husband" and "Great Day in the Cows House" can both be found in White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006. The paperback edition includes a CD of Hall reading all the poems included in the collection. 

No comments:

Post a Comment