Donald Hall,
Without: Poems
(Mariner, 1999)

Without constitutes my first experience with Donald Hall's poetry. Need I say it was not my last? This collection reads like a novel; it is really a fluid sequence of accounts of his wife's death, either in devastatingly ironic and witty snapshots or extended odes and elegies such as the harrowing "Letter With No Address," written to his dead wife, nearly all of which will grab you by the throat and suck you into the spaces in between the words.

Hall knew that if he was going to try and rip a vein of life from his soul and convey its contents to his readers, he could only do so by immersing them within the poems themselves. Few poets ever develop the kind of authenticity of voice required to achieve such a feat. It is surely a standard to which any poet aspires.

Hall approached this project perfectly. This is not a collection that stammers with captivating imagery or the kind of unfathomable metaphorical connections that are found in the work of our best American poets such as Hart Crane or Walt Whitman. Hall knew that in devoting a collection of poems to such a personal and painful experience, one that obviously left its fang marks on his heart, he risked committing some of the cardinal sins of poetry, such as mawkishness and self-pity.

He avoids those pitfalls at every conceivable instance. His ability to blend sentimentality with dry irony and compelling wit, compounded by his successful effort to keep himself out of the poems despite his inevitable relation to them, make this a pinnacle of his career, and indeed the work of a man who just may be ranked among our very top American poets somewhere down the line. Without stands among the most riveting documents of love, desire and loss to be found throughout the history of American poetry.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 15 February 2003

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