This is the time of year when my reading usually sinks into a marshmallowy cloud of foodish fiction, but Donald Hall’s Life Work started nagging at me again. I started it this summer, loved and left it. Picked it up again a few weeks ago, loved some more then left it again. I putt-putted through, reading a page a day here and there, and now it’s over and I miss it. This is what it it’s like to be friends with a book.
Donald Hall’s clean, precise prose reminds me of Muriel Spark’s. I guess that’s not surprising considering both are accomplished poets. The selective imagery reveals far more than his exposition, but every weighty sentence belongs.
Writing in the house his ancestors built in Wilmot, New Hampshire, Hall draws a short line from his family’s physically demanding lives on the farm to his own career as a poet. Both require everything and more, though he acknowledges sitting down to write is easier on the body and more rewarding to the mind. He and his late wife poet Jane Kenyon moved to the house in 1975 after years of speaking and traveling all over the world to make a go at a freelance life.
I repeat stories I grew up on, stories that created me.
In one part he mentions his grandfather telling him a tale of the civil war, another of the blizzard of ’88. I had to back up. This is living history; he’s talking about 1888 of course, though my brain instantly autofilled 1988.
Again and again the stories he recalls from his grandparents underscore the importance of good work and the worth it gives a person, provided joy is found in it and it’s performed with a degree of “absorbedness”. His ancestors were basically subsistence farmers. They bartered for the things they needed and couldn’t grow. Relatively, this wasn’t very long ago but we’ve traveled so far away from this approach to life. These passages were a breath of fresh air in a time when every other headline is about working less to leisure more. I enjoy play days with my nieces, but I really love having some time to dig in to my own projects, my real work.
The tone darkens towards the end as Hall prepares for chemo and considers the gravity of his cancer. The reader knows he pulls through, but it’s hard to read of the comfort his wife brings him knowing she would die of leukemia in a few short years from the writing of this book.
My favorite part was whatever page I happened to read on any given day. It’s far from entertaining, but always thoughtful, smart and loaded. While not for every one, this book is a pleasure to read and a treasure to have within reach.
One thing he mentioned kind of blew my mind. I didn’t even note it down, but I keep thinking how much more effective a system of government would be (and more engaged its people) if it were still in place. Either his grandfather or great-grandfather was able to pay his taxes through labor rather than money. Imagine being able to repair signs or work on local roads instead of hacking off a huge percentage of your income for the IRS each year. I’d be all over that. Yes, I’d gladly fill pot holes or, um, tighten screws on bridges. Though I could also cut hair, make green drinks, construct some funky looking birdhouses AND drastically misdiagnose ailments via the Internets. I also make a mean vegan chocolate pudding…
At only 120 pages, selective details of his uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents lives and the stories they told of farming build to a meditation on what it is to work with purpose and allow life to grow around what you do every day. It’s a hefty swirl of memoir melting on scoops autobiography and family history drizzled with essays. It’s literary sundae! And my friend.