“At fourteen I decided to spend my life writing poetry, which is what I have done.” Those are the first words of Donald Hall‘s charming and harrowing memoir, Unpacking the Boxes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $24). It’s two books, really.
One is about the shy boy from Hamden, Connecticut, who took the bus into New Haven on Saturdays to watch horror films, and thus found his way to Edgar Allan Poe, who inspired his first poem, a morbid ditty about death called “The End of All.”
Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, prizes, and honors followed, ending with peace and productivity on his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm.
The second book is about the end of all: the death of Hall’s second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in 1995. It’s difficult to bear Hall’s honesty about the aftereffects–howling in pain, bursting into tears every Saturday at the exact moment of her death, casual promiscuity, madness–and equally difficult to tear one’s eyes away.
“Gradually, over the years, I left grief’s house and middle age for the thin air of antiquity’s planet,” he reports in the final chapter, candid as ever about age’s indignities: frequent falls, a stroke, being stopped by a policeman for the crime of “driving while old.” But there are also age’s compensations: grandchildren, old friends, and, in 2006, the ultimate honor of being named America’s poet laureate. “These beneficences sustain me,” he ends the book. “I survive to love and write poems as long as I can.”