Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Miracles of Art: Remembering Donald Hall

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, Eagle Pond Farm, 1993
Credit: New Hampshire Public radio
I believe in the miracles of art but what
prodigy will keep you safe beside me.

These words are inscribed on a polished black granite stone shaded by oaks and birches on the edge of Proctor Cemetery, in Andover, New Hampshire.  They were penned by the late poet Jane Kenyon (1948-1995), when Donald Hall, her husband and fellow poet, was diagnosed with liver cancer.  Remarkably, he recovered only for Kenyon a short time later to be diagnosed with leukemia to which she succumbed in 1995 at age 47.  She believed the miracles of art might save her husband.  The doctors saved him only so he could watch her die.  Hall had this epitaph chiseled onto the granite stone along with Kenyon’s name and dates, and his own name and 1928, his year of birth.   One date was omitted.  For years Hall would visit Proctor Cemetery and dream of the days they shared in Ann Arbor, and since 1975 at Eagle Pond Farm.  Those lost days.  And he dreamed of the time he would finally lie safe beside her.

A week ago a dear friend messaged me to inform me that Donald Hall, one of my favorite poets, had passed away the previous evening at his ancestral Eagle Pond Farm, in Wilmot, New Hampshire.  He was 89 and in failing health for some time.  So I cannot say I was shocked by the news, but I am nevertheless devastated by the loss of this New England, this American icon, who had reached the pinnacle of his profession of poet, essayist, and dare I say, a definer of American culture.  He would be named US Poet Laureate in 2006-2007.

There have many tributes to Mr. Hall since his passing; extensive obituaries recounting his life and career in literature and letters have appeared in newspapers and journals  across the country.  I doubt I can say anything about his life and writings that have not already been said many times over.   So permit me to share a few personal notes about the times his and my orbits intersected.

I had been reading Hall’s poems and essays for many years when I first wrote to him in 1998 asking if he might contribute a poem or an essay for an anthology I was editing to commemorate the life and works of my dear friend John Haines, a former poet laureate of Alaska.  I had first met John a few years earlier when he was the writer in residence at the George Washington University, in Washington, DC, and when he had invited me to participate in a workshop he was leading.  We became good friends after that and frequently corresponded after his return to Alaska.  So I wanted the anthology to include offerings from friends and contemporaries who knew John.  Donald  Hall was at the top of the list. 

I received a very nice letter from Hall congratulating me on my project yet he regretted that he had nothing he could contribute; his time was then devoted to the writing of elegiac verse (“poetry begins with elegy”) and prose while trying to come to terms with Kenyon’s premature death, as well as his own mortality. I then wrote back to him inquiring whether I might have permission to use “Stony John Haines” (1990), a short commentary which appeared in Death to Death to Poetry published by the University of Michigan Press, in 1994.   Hall was more than gracious and happy to allow me to include it in A Gradual Twilight: An Appreciation of John Haines published by CavanKerry Press, in 2003.

I met Hall for the first time when he read with Charles Simic at the Library of Congress in early March 1999.  We spoke after the reading and he asked how the Haines anthology was coming along.   After that we continued to correspond until we met again in the autumn of 2000 when he gave a reading from Kenyon’s posthumous collection, One Hundred White Daffodils, at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.  I was there doing literary research at the Houghton Library and saw an announcement for the reading on a kiosk in Harvard Yard.   That evening I wandered over to the museum after the library had closed and once again I enjoyed a nice conversation with Hall as he inscribed Kenyon’s book to me as “Jane’s remains.”   The next day we bumped into each other at the minuscule Grolier’s Poetry Bookshop near Harvard Yard.  Hall used to hang out there during his undergraduate days and was making a few purchases before returning to Eagle Pond Farm.
Our correspondence continued for many year after that as age and infirmities began to take their toll on Hall’s body although he continued to reside at his ancient farm up until his death.  His mind remained sharp when the well of poems eventually dried up eight years ago.  He nevertheless continued to write essays in which he described the afflictions of age.  Essays After Eighty appeared in 2014 and he recognized that his own mortal coil was quickly shuffling off.  “In a paragraph or two, my prose embodies a momentary victory over fatigue.”  Still he kept writing.

Last year I received a nice letter from Hall informing me that he was assembling yet another collection of essays.  He included a mock up of the proposed cover - A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety - along with a couple brief excerpts. “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.”  Just a few days before his passing I wrote to Hall telling him how much I was looking forward to the publication of the new book in July.   Unfortunately I doubt he saw my letter, and it is sad to think he will not see the publication of his last book and revel in its success.   It will be hard to read knowing Hall is no longer among us.  Writing about his friend Richard Wilbur, who died last year at age 96: “In his work he ought to survive, but probably, like most of us, he won’t.”  I disagree.  I am certain Hall’s legacy will live beyond my own years. 

Today Donald Hall was buried beside his beloved Jane in Proctor Cemetery, sharing the “double solitude” they experienced together for two decades at nearby Eagle Pond Farm.  But his poetry and prose will remain with us as we carry on - Don’s remains.   They are his prodigy, his miracles of art.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Price of Silence? - Ignoring a Crime Against Humanity

Rob Rogers, former editorial cartoonist at the Pittsburgh Post Gacette
Note bene: Rob Rogers (no relation although I would be honored if he was), who drew the above cartoon, was fired last Thursday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where he had been an editorial cartoonist for 25 years.   It seems the editor of the paper took issue with Rogers’ frequent criticism of Trump and his administration. So much for free speech in Pittsburgh!!  

If you have been following the news over the past week or so you are by now well familiar with the growing outcry against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents who have crossed the US-Mexican border illegally.  This goes hat in hand with the administration’s "zero tolerance" approach to illegal entry into the United States.  Adults who do so - once charged only with a misdemeanor for a first time offense - are now being criminally prosecuted.  Figures issued by the US Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible inter alia with border security, reports that almost 2,000 migrant children were separated from their families over six weeks between April 19 and May 31.  And this number continues to grow with each passing day as more migrants arrive at the border.

DHS has refused to provide the American people with any details on the age of these children.  Suffice it to say they are being classified as “unaccompanied minors” and therefore too young to be separated from their parents who brought them to the border and who are being charged with a crime and being detained in separate facilities..  Once they are processed by DHS, these children are transferred to Ben Carson’s US Department of Health and Human Services and incarcerated in US government detention facilities or assigned to foster care.  I should remind my readers that it was Ben Carson, who as a candidate for president, called for the use of military drone strikes to seal the Mexican border. 

Let all of this sink in.  Think about it.  US government agencies are separating children from parents; telling parents their children are being taken for baths and child care.  Children are not being returned and parents are not told where they are.  Instead they are concentrating and warehousing these children in camps and other detention facilities.  The obvious comparison to the train platforms at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps is more than unsettling and troubling. Americans of every stripe should rise up in disgust against this policy. It is shameful and it is downright wrong! 

Thankfully some are speaking out.  The United Nations has called on the US to immediately halt the separations.  Yesterday the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned this US policy; “the thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”  So this afternoon the United States announced that it is withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council, in part due to this condemnation of the “zero tolerance” policy.   No doubt this is the work of the nefarious John Bolton, Trump’s new National Security Advisor.  Former First Lady Laura Bush criticized this policy in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Washington Post: “this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart . . . Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children . . . .”  Finally: “We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place."  Still, the Trump administration’s policy is supported by certain factions within the Republican Party while still others are expressing their misgiving and are uncomfortable with the tactics being enforced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice.  So why aren’t they doing anything about it beyond furrowing their brows and wringing their hands?

I am not the first, and I will certainly not be the last person to compare the Trump administration’s policy with that imposed by the Nazi’s in Germany.  Sessions has been quick to contradict such a comparison, stating last night during a Fox News interview that this is “a real exaggeration” and reminding the interviewer and the audience:  "In Nazi Germany, they would keep the Jews from leaving the country.”  Such an ignorant statement is beyond contempt.  CNN’s legal analyst Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, perhaps said it best.  "When you have to explain to people why your policies aren't exactly like Nazi Germany, it's time to rethink your policies."

Sessions has compounded his ignorance by quoting a verse from St Paul's Letter to the Romans on obeying the laws of government:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves [Romans 13: 1-2].

 He forgot to read on or ignored it intentionally.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law [Romans 13: 9-10].

And perhaps Sessions and other in this administration, if they really want to derive justification for their policies from the Bible, might want to look back to the Old Testament:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God [Leviticus 19: 33-34].

There is no justification for this despicable policy.  If these are not crimes against humanity I don’t know what are?   We have tried and sent men and women to the gallows for such actions.  We must speak out immediately and with loud voices and oppose what Trump is trying to do to America.  First he demonized the Mexicans as rapists and murderers, and then Muslims as terrorists.  Then he demonized the North Koreans (who now seem to be our new best friends).  He is accusing our allies of cheating and stealing from America, all the while getting cozy with thug dictators far and wide.  Now he is back casting dispersions on Mexicans and migrants from Central America which he claims are “infesting” America..  

The price of silence?  They came for the Jews.  We said nothing.  They came for the gays.  We said nothing.  They came for the Muslims.  We said nothing.  They came for the blacks.  We said nothing.  Then they came for us and there was no one left to say anything.

Don’t be silent!  Speak out against Trump’s racist, nativist and xenophobic policies!  


Monday, June 18, 2018

i'm Back and the Pot is Bubbling Over

A Hemingway Reflection - Port Clyde, Maine
I have been on a somewhat forced hiatus for the past three months while I addressed some pressing health concerns.  Fortunately things are returning to normal although slower that I had hoped.

But all is not lost.  I have used this time to catch up on my reading.  I focused most of that attention on Hemingway’s oeuvre, both his own works in addition to important secondary works on a variety of related topics, including but not limited to his fishing and hunting, his activities during both world wars, and his reportage during the Spanish Civil War.  I even read a book on the various alcohol concoctions that appear throughout his work . . . an tried a couple to keep it real.  I want to view and comprehend his terroir, the flavors and smells of the regions he wrote about - Michigan, Paris and France, Italy, Spain, Key West, Cuba, and Wyoming.   Hard to believe that when Hemingway was my age he had been dead for five years!  A sobering thought.

I also worked through two more drafts of my own novel-in-progress. I’m finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  (My reading of Hemingway has facilitated this undertaking)  As a result, however, this blog, despite my best intentions, has taken a back seat to other projects and life’s necessities.  But I am back now, the pot is bubbling over and about to spill forth on a host of topics as we prepare to head north again for our annual summer respite at the lake in Maine.   I hope to find plenty of time there to catch up on so many projects and plans, including new postings here.  So stay tuned.  More is on the way!