Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Books

Poet Donald Hall’s ‘A Carnival of Losses,’ to be published after his death, offers essays on his life

Donald Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, died on June 23 at his home in Wilmot, N.H. He was 89.

An influential poet for more than 60 years, the prolific Hall published more than 20 poetry collections as well as memoirs, fiction, essays, biographies, children’s books and books about baseball. He was the nation’s poet laureate in 2006-07.

Hall’s many honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Silver Medal and the Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2011, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony.

On July 10, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish his book A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. Here is an excerpt.

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

There’s One, There’s One

I’ve told it before, my favorite story about my great-grandfather Ben Keneston on his sheep farm at the north end of Ragged Mountain. Moving his herd from one pasture to another, he decided to determine how many head there were. He set a hired man to count the creatures as they crossed the road but picked a fellow who never learned to cipher. Ben Keneston found him repeating, "There’s one, there’s one, there’s one.…"

Born in 1826 — 102 years before me — my great-grandfather clipped wool throughout the Civil War, and made a good penny selling it to New Hampshire’s mills while they lacked cotton. In 1865 he decided to move from his Danbury mountain — it’s a ski slope now — to Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot. He bought this 1803 cape in a valley five miles south of the sheep farm and added rooms for his big family.

Ben’s youngest child was born in 1878, my grandmother Kate, and I spent my childhood summers haying these fields with my grandfather, who died at seventy-seven. When Kate turned ninety-seven, Jane and I bought this place from her. I held Kate’s hand as she died, and now I’m about to turn ninety. This farm has housed members of one family for almost 160 years. It’s crowded with yesterday’s detritus. I write these words beside a battered three-legged stool. I sat on this stool at ten or eleven, while I watched my grandfather milk six Holsteins in the barn’s tie-up.

When Jane was alive and the five grandchildren were little, we speculated which of them might take over the farmhouse. After Jane died and the grandchildren aged toward college, I realized that nobody would. None would be freelance writers. Only retired rich folks lived deep in the countryside. After I died my offspring would empty the house, toss the family’s scattery abundance into a platoon of dumpsters, and sell the shell to somebody old who wanted to live beside Route 4 in Wilmot, New Hampshire.

I stayed alive and stayed alive and then came a family party late in my eighties, with my children and my granddaughter Allison. She is my daughter Philippa’s first child, who grew up forty minutes away. When she was a baby, with Philippa’s help she often called on Jane and me. I remember Jane falling asleep on the sofa with Allison lying full-length asleep on top of her. Some years later, Vassar admitted Allison early and she majored in art history with a minor in English, writing a thesis on Rembrandt’s late drawings. When she graduated, it turned out that her salable talent was technological skill. She joined a business consultancy and worked at home, commanding electronic devices. Now she lives with her husband Will in New Hampshire, an hour and a half from my house. At my birthday party, she detached herself from the gang to tell me that when I died, she and Will would move into Eagle Pond Farm, where she could continue her work. In my generation, no one could have imagined a job like Allison’s. She didn’t ask me if she could live here; she told me she would.

And these were the happiest words I ever heard, a joy that depended on dying, therefore an inevitable, even a reliable, joy. The sheep farmer’s great-great-great-granddaughter would continue the family residence. And after Allison and Will? There’s one, there’s one, and maybe there’s another.

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