by Jessica Moll & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or some people facing middle age, a new sports car is enough. But Donald Hall's midlife crisis was a complete makeover. He fell in love with a woman 20 years younger than him, quit his teaching job at the University of Michigan, and at age 47 moved to rural New Hampshire to write full time. On the farm that his great-grandfather had settled 100 years earlier, he and Jane Kenyon lived out the ideal writer's life. For 20 years, they spent their mornings writing poems at opposite ends of the house, convening in the early afternoon for a nap or a game of ping-pong. Then back to work for the rest of the day -- not poetry, but the bread-and-butter work: editing, or writing textbooks and articles. Their partnership was productive and passionate -- it was even featured in a Bill Moyers documentary, A Life Together.
Blissful in their routine, they didn't worry about how it would end. If anything, they assumed it would be Kenyon who would outlive her former professor. But when she died in 1995, just 15 months after she'd been diagnosed with leukemia, Hall was the one left alone to bear the loss.
"For the first five years, I was totally stricken. I plunged into savage depression," he recalls.
His two books written during those years, Without and The Painted Bed, descend into that dark place. Have a box of Kleenex on hand when you read them. But be prepared to laugh, too: Hall never goes so far off the deep end that he loses his sense of humor.
As a way of writing through grief, Hall composed letter-poems to his dead wife. In a short poem, "Postcard: January 22nd," Kenyon's death becomes a baby he must care for. "I grew heavy through summer and autumn / and now I bear your death. I feed her, / bathe her, rock her, and change her diapers."
"That poem was written nine months after she died," Hall explains. Then he muses, "I guess her death is now in junior high. April 22 -- I'll be flying across the country on the 11-year anniversary of her death."
Gradually Hall has been turning to other subjects. "About five years ago, I began to simmer down. I stopped taking medication. Now I'm feeling quite good. I'm feeling old."
He may be old, but it's not as if he has nothing to show for it. His newest collection, White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006, collects more than 200 poems from a highly celebrated career. The book comes with a CD that Hall recorded specially for this publication. "I love to read aloud," he admits. "Some people think I'm good at it.
"It's a big book, bigger than I would have liked. It's heavy to read in bed," he laments. "But I had a hard time choosing." He adds cheerfully, "It's a big deal for me, because I'm 77. I might write another book, but I won't have another big 'Selected.' Not in my lifetime. Unless I live to be 108."
Poet Donald Hall reads from his work on Tuesday, April 25, at 7:30 pm in the Robinson Teaching Theater in Weyerhaeuser Hall at Whitworth College, 300 W. Hawthorne Rd. Free. Call 777-3253.