by Donald Hall
He is not America’s richest or most famous writer, and he’s certainly not the most visceral. But gently witty Donald Hall is surely among the most prolific and versatile; best known as a poet, he is also an essayist, critic, playwright, children’s novelist, baseball historian and celebrant of the rural past. Given his output, it is astonishing to learn from this bittersweet elegiac memoir that he often revises pieces dozens of times—one poem has seen more than 500 drafts. He does not tell this self-pityingly. The endearing notion of this graceful blend of vignettes and rumination is to contrast the work obsession of Hall and other artists, most notably sculptor Henry Moore, with the arduous farm labor of his New Hampshire forebears and the office drudgery of his businessman father. Beyond this, Hall waxes philosophical about work’s meaning in all lives and is especially shrewd about women and the hearth.
The poignant undercurrent is that midway through the writing, Hall learned he had liver cancer and was unlikely to live more than two years. He writes with characteristic simplicity, “When I learned of my illness, I wept for myself and for my old mother, for my children and grandchildren, and for Jane. And I wept to think that I would have to stop working.” For now, Hall remains well enough to have traveled last month to India. More important to him, long after he is denied the pleasure of writing, creations like Life Work will go on giving intense pleasure. There could be no better introduction to his charms than this apparent farewell. (Beacon Press, $15)