Donald Hall’s keen observations on grief in Without had a profound impact on my understanding of the possibilities of elegiac poems. Since relocating to London, Douglas Dunn’s slim volume Elegies has deepened my understanding of the form, and some of its specific cultural implications. Both collections were written in the wake of the poet’s wife’s death from cancer. And each, in its way, is a remarkable achievement of transcending loss to make art. But here the similarities end, and certain differences — ones I find illustrative of the subtle divide in Anglo-American poetics — begin.
Whereas Hall’s poems are largely confessional, Dunn’s might be called archaeological. Taking the first poems from each book as examples, we find in “Her Long Illness” an account in the third-person that is none-the-less told in scene, revealing intimate details of the couple’s final moments together. By contrast, Dunn’s “Re-Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories” takes us through an examination of the stains on a book’s pages, invokes Robert Frost’s “A Considerable Speck” in addressing a fly, and only obliquely touches on the matter of grief itself in the final words of the poem: “one dry tear punctuating ‘Bliss’.”
Some of this stems from the vantage point taken up by the speaker — whereas Hall is re-living experience, going back to the hospital scenes in his mind, Dunn is reflecting, rooted in the present, casting forward and back. How each poet chooses to reflect or relive, however, and the effect this produces in the poems, brings colour to certain value differences between the two poetics.
In my lecture on “Emulation, Originality and the Writing Tradition,” I drew on Mary Oliver in A Poetry Handbook discussing a quote by Flaubert she keeps close to her writing desk, and which she originally came upon in Van Gogh’s letters: “Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation.” I like this quote, because it implies that not only talent but originality are functions — not of innate gift, but of learned behaviors such as patience, will power, and intense observation. I would contend, also, that Oliver’s ability to write successfully about as timeless and universal a topic as nature depends upon, and is a function of, her own powers of intense observation.
Grief is also a timeless and universal topic. In Without, it is Donald Hall’s keenly remembered details which strike me with a harrowing veracity. He demonstrates so many of the nuances of grief through carefully chosen details, bringing me in to each experience almost tactilely. The poems in this collection work together to form a compelling narrative, however nearly any one of them could also stand alone to illustrate a variety of points about how Hall treats such a difficult subject with such startling honesty. Consider the title poem, “Her Long Illness:”
Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurse’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.