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Donald Hall’s “The Back Chamber”

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From the time I was 8 until I was 14, I spent a week each summer at my grandmother’s house in Shreveport. I would sleep in the second bedroom, which was always called “the back room” even though it and my grandmother’s bedroom formed the back of the house. It was the room with a ceiling door in the closet that led to the attic; it was the room where my grandmother stored a lot of things, including my grandfather’s cane; it was the room and the bed where my grandfather died. That I slept in that bed and in that room never bothered me; instead, I felt closer to him, this man who died when I was nine months old but had shaped so many in the family, including my father.

I was continually reminded of this “back room” while reading former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s The Back Chamber: Poems, a collection filled with memory, desire, imaginings and longings, the collection Hall needed to write as he enters his ninth decade. The title poem captures the essence of the collection:

The Back Chamber

Here is the houses’ genius: pram and bedstead,
Heart-shaped valentine candy
Boxes, oil lamps, a captain’s chair,
And Ben Keneston’s underwear,
A century ago
Folded away in case it came in handy,
By prudent family dead.

Here chests keep layers of relics: a beaded purse.
A graduation dress
That Ben’s wife Lucy made in homespun,
Reports from school in nineteen-one,
A century ago,
And painted China heads, now bodiless,
From dolls of three dead daughters.

Here, in a few short lines, is memory, family history, relics from that history. Old report cards – the small things of living and the small things of a life that become more important as the end of life becomes closer, not the big, major events of life but the common, everyday things that happen, almost as a matter of course, what Hall refers to in “The Things” as “the masters of the trivial.”

A highlight of the poems is “Ric’s Progress,” which in 21 sections tells the story of Ric, his first and second marriages, how his life changed with the loss of a job, where he ends up at age 60. It’s not exactly a happy ending. As Hall says, “…if stories are happy, they haven’t ended.” The poem series ends with Ric and his second wife Molly contemplating their sagging and wrinkled skin.

These are poems about memories, both real and imagined: old loves, teenage years, the inevitable aging process. Hall’s first wife, poet Jane Kenyon who died at 48, is cited frequently, her shadow looming large in the poet’s mind, as she’s described in the extended poem “Meatloaf:”

…Jane Kenyon, who loved baseball, enjoyed
the game on TV but fell asleep
by the fifth inning, She died twelve years
ago, and thus would be sixty now,
watching baseball as her hair turned right.
I see her tending her hollyhocks,
gazing west at Eagle Pond, walking
to the porch favoring her right knee.
I live alone with baseball each night
but without poems…

It is memory real and memories imagined, the relationships the poet has and with people alive and dead, that so mark this strong collection. These are poems of a life lived long.

The Back Chamber will be published Sept. 13.

Your Comments

2 Comments so far

  1. All this talk of memory and poetry makes me think of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” which I just saw on stage for the first time. It is memory real and memory imagined, just as you said, and real relationships, even when they’re sad. I’m going again Saturday and again next Thursday.

  2. nancemarie says:

    horehound drops
    marshmallow peanuts
    canned pears cooked in red hots
    grandpa sipping hot coffee out of the saucer
    vanilla ice cream
    rocking chairs
    porch swing
    snap dragons
    an ironing board in the kitchen
    a clock that chimed


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