‘Carnival of Losses’ is Hall’s final volume of essays
“A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Donald Hall
A few years ago, Donald Hall wrote a book called “Essays After Eighty” about the “diminishments” of old age. His follow-up collection, “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety,” comes just weeks after his death at 89 and roughly three months shy of his 90th birthday.
And it’s a beauty, brimming with stories, confessions and faded snapshots in time in which he muses about life, settles a few scores and brags a little about his accomplishments. “Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?” he says.
A former U.S. poet laureate and recipient of the National Medal of Arts, Hall published dozens of books, edited numerous anthologies and hobnobbed with the likes of William Faulkner and T.S. Eliot. Fellow writers will enjoy his observations about writing, including more than a dozen short profiles of poets he’s known and admired — or not.
Most of the essays are new, although a few appeared elsewhere, including “Necropoetics,” an elegiac tribute to his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. Some explore his deep roots in New England and daily life on the New Hampshire farm that’s been in his family for generations. He died there June 23.
In “Way Way Down, Way Way Up,” he movingly recounts a period of several months in his mid-80s when he was so sick he couldn’t write, even though “I had written or tried to write every day since I was 12.” Miraculously, he recovers enough to attend a performance during which he hears a recording of himself reading a poem about Jane’s death. In the midst of his joy, he weeps. Later he reflects: “Only the wrenching apart permits or reveals the wholeness. ... Up and down. Down and up ... a carnival of losses.”
It’s odd that a book whose subject is loss could be so uplifting. And yet it is. Hall may be telling us what it’s like to fall apart, but he does it so calmly, and with such wit and exactitude, that you can’t help but shake your head in wonder.
“You are old when someone mentions an event two years in the future and looks embarrassed,” he writes in the essay “You Are Old.” It ends on a plaintive note: “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you. At nineteen you were six foot two. At ninety-one you will be two foot six.” Sadly, he didn’t quite make it.