Monday, April 29, 2013

Thomas Mira y Lopez on Donald Hall’s “Out the Window”

I first read Donald Hall’s “Out the Window” [link to excerpt] [pdf] in The New Yorker a year ago at 5:30 a.m. I was a barista at a French-Moroccan restaurant in the West Village and the morning shift began at 6. Two or three times a week, I would wake up before dawn and take the L train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, in the gloomiest of moods if I did not have something to read.
     Subway reading is tricky business. You want to choose something that can withstand and accompany the bumps and jostles of the ride. Light and engaging is good, yet at the same time you are conscious that fellow passengers notice what you read, that they can either approve or disapprove, even read over your shoulder. I like to read magazines because they are pliable and compact and The New Yorker in particular because I want to look like a serious, informed, young man. Magazines are also ideal for prolonged visits to temporary spaces (the subway, the bathroom, jury duty, doctors’ waiting rooms). They serve as buffers and distractions to whatever waits on the other side of that space—the news the doctor will deliver or the fact that once again I will put on a striped, coffee-stained American Apparel shirt and cap in order to look like a French sailor as I work a job that has no foreseeable future but also no end.
     But Hall’s essay does not distract. It confronts, ever so quietly, ever so memorably. And so while the L at 5:30 a.m.—reggaeton muffled on headphones, passengers bundled up like pigeons, the car locked into its tracks—might not be the most suitable space to read an essay about a poet gazing out his New Hampshire window, it is an intuitive one in which to read an eighty-three year old’s acknowledgment of his own mortality and fatigue.
     What first drew me to “Out the Window”, what made me resist the urge to flip through the cartoons, is that it’s about nothing. I like essays about nothing—or essays that don’t feel as if they have to be about something—because they usually then become something only after they’ve spent a long time thinking and reflecting about how they’re in a sense about nothing. Or, rather, “Out the Window” is about the everyday, which can be everything and nothing. The essay opens with Hall simply sitting at his window, a place he often occupies now that he is eighty-three. He is looking out at the birds in his feeder and at his family’s barn that must withstand another winter. He begins: “Today it is January, midmonth, mid-day, and mid-New Hampshire.” We are trapped alongside Hall in his armchair, yet still we move, honing in both in time (from month to midmonth to a time of day) and place. The ease with which Hall directs our focus underscores the dexterity of the language: today, a day, is not exactly January, just as the movement from time to a place both catches us by surprise and yet maintains a fluidity in the repeated prefix ‘mid’.
     Sentences such as the above strike me as admirable. Hall’s tone is quiet, sober, considered. Most of all, it is considerate: as Hall documents his losses at eighty three (one of which he says is language), he retains a control over the very language that his admissions claim to contradict. These losses—that of his wife, Jane Kenyon the poet, who died of leukemia at forty-seven, or his father who died at fifty-two—cause Hall to reevaluate his own physical and mental regressions. In doing so, he makes a small, quiet observation, one I did not expect him to make, that lets you glimpse the full weight of his life’s sadness as well as its blessedness: “I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two.” Hall does not set these up as juxtapositions, but as co-existing, harmonious, residing in a state truer to this poet’s life. More than that, in writing that “circles grow smaller”, he rephrases a metaphor his wife used to describe his mother’s death and is thus enacting his own words, “a ceremony of losses”, by repeating and honoring hers.Hall goes on to write: “When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.” He darkens over diminishments (a verb to match its object) and then sits, in the light, during the day, to watch birds and his barn. He is doing nothing, yet now we know the reason why: because if he were to do something (i.e. “lament and darken”), that would truly be doing nothing. We return to the essay’s beginning and feel the circles of Hall’s prose growing tighter.
     And then there’s his use of adjectives. Here is how he describes his grandmother’s death: “Three years later, in the Peabody Home, I sat beside her listening to Cheyne-Stokes breathing. I was holding her hand when she died.” It is difficult, I have found, to write death. Even more difficult to write it concisely. Yet here Hall nails it with one adjective that does not necessarily encapsulate death, but death in this specific case: not everybody has Cheyne-Stoke breathing when they die, not everyone who displays Cheyne-Stoke breathing is dying (they could be sleeping) but it is appropriate here. It’s a proper adjective, capitalized, a medical term in a poet’s lexicon, yet it does not feel out of place, nor like a difficult adjective just thrown in for the sake of opening our dictionaries. Earlier in the passage Hall has discussed his mother’s smoking habits: “two packs a day—unfiltered Chesterfields first, then filtered Kents”. Not only is this language rhythmic (from unfiltered to filtered, from first to then, from the Ch of Chesterfield to the K in Kent, unfil to field to first to fil to Kents, ter to ter to ter), but it surfaces very subtly, very coyly in the Cheyne-Stokes line: Cheyne-Stokes looks a bit like the word Chesterfield and, even though we are reading of Hall’s grandmother here and not his mother, I’m left scratching my head as to why this all sounds so familiar until I realize, ahh, that Cheyne-Stokes rhymes with chain smokes.
     Hall writes about difficult subjects—death and ageing—with seeming ease. Not just all ages (“thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk”) but old age. Not just old age, but his old age. As with the essay’s opening (“January, midmonth, mid-day, mid-New Hampshire”), Hall approaches his situation from all angles: how he sees himself, how he sees others and how others of all ages see him. Here’s one such passage: “Over the years I travelled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying—in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way—but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial.” How sly is this sentiment: we don’t become extraterrestrial, but we understand ourselves as such, which implies that others might have been understanding or seeing us like this long before we came around to such a viewpoint. This works because it’s true and not true (the elderly are not aliens but they can have greenish skin, extra (sort of) heads and most definitely strange protuberances) and because it both extends distance (by speaking of extraterrestrials and outer space) and collapses it in Hall’s honesty about his own condition, his own old age, his own body.
     This capacity for subtle surprise pervades the essay. “Cornflowers bloom,” Hall writes near the end, describing his landscape. Here is another great word choice—cornflowers are blue and so how much more important does that verb become, how much more connotation and suggestion does he get by pairing it with a cornflower instead of, say, a daffodil. He claims “New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures.” New poems might no longer arrive, but that assonance is surely there—even in the sentence where he doubts its place (“poems” and “no”, “me” and “prodigies”). And then there is metaphor. For the duration of the essay, Hall sits and looks out at his barn. As he traces its history, I do not realize till the essay’s end that this barn, its age, its past, runs concurrent with him. That it is, in fact, him: “Over eighty years, it has changed from a working barn to a barn for looking at.” That’s the thing about Hall’s metaphor, his prose in general: it is so quiet yet so in command that, like a hushed train trip at dawn, you do not realize you have reached your destination until you are already there. And while that destination—an essay’s end, a life’s end—may be both necessary and undesired, it at least leaves you with nowhere to go but walking up, through a turnstile and into daylight.


Thomas Mira y Lopez was born and raised in New York City. He now lives in Tucson, where he is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Arizona. His work appears online in Green Briar Review.

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