Last Thursday night, I picked up Donald Hall’s The Painted Bed when I couldn’t sleep. I shuffle through various poetry books on my night stand, even after reading them, going back to them again and again usually proves to be worthwhile.
I read three poems that night at random. All poems I have read multiple times before. That night there were things that resonated in two of these poems that simply did not do the same for me in earlier reads.
In Wool Squares where the voice talks about going through a “muddled heap of women’s work and finding wool squares she used to knit while he sat opposite. And this is one of those poems that one assumes Hall is writing from his own persona. Jane has succumbed finally to leukemia and he does a most interesting thing. He evokes Young Caitlin, wife of Dylan Thomas. It is so odd that this did not strike me as particularly profound in earlier readings. Hall finds himself in Caitlin here the widow with the “leftover life to kill.” His final stanza…
“At seventy I taste / In solitude / Starvation’s food, / As the land goes to waste / Where her death overthrew / A government of two.”
My recollection is that in earlier reads I focused on the wool squares themselves and the visual of the two of them sitting in the same room, he recalling her work on them. I also connected with his solitude. It is hard not to read Halls late work especially and not feel the grayness. But in this last read I was struck by his metaphorical view as the two of them a unique government that was overthrow by her death. These are not profound discoveries in this poem, but they provided a more salient view for me then before.
The other poem was Ardor. Hall unleashes all the accompanying feelings; the outrage, the desire. The inability to work, to love or die. “Each day lapses as I recite my complaints / Lust is grief that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.” A very strong final line in the last stanza. The magnitude of it seems so real in my latest read.
People will often say that Hall is a downer to read. Certainly, isolated to an individual poem or two, one can easily reach this conclusion. But even in Hall’s later work, the underlying motive is love. There few contemporary poets that have the command of love either in abundance or loss that he has.