University Of Chicago Press, $22.00 (hardcover)
If you want to fall in love with James Merrill (again) be sure to look up his charming age-bowing-to-youth introduction to Amherst-in-residence poet, Daniel Hall’s first book, Hermit In Landscape (1990) which he chose for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In it, Merrill praises the young poet for his reserve and quietude “in an era of biographical excesses.” As an example of his “vitally compact” poetry, Merrill submits Hall’s description of a room “…whose/eight corners gaze inward,” exclaiming, “…how about those eight corners? They’ve changed forever my sense of a room”.
Surely, no one would deny Merrill his small epiphany, but other commentators have found a coldness in the formalism of Hall’s early poems noting the self-limiting quality of his emotional restraint. Nevertheless, award followed award. A National Endowment For The Arts in 1995, a Whiting in 1998, and when his second book, Strange Relation (“Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation,” Wallace Stevens) was published it was greeted with enthusiasm. While he had not yet “laid bare his heart” (Timothy Donnelly, Poetry Editor, Boston Review, 1997) the consensus was that Hall had turned a corner. One of five winners of the 1995 National Poetry Series Competition selected by poet Mark Doty, the collection was hailed for its “…sensual imagery” and “frank emotionality,” (Donnelly).
Now, however, with the publication of his third book, Under Sleep, Hall’s poetry has taken an unexpected detour as death intrudes on life’s promises. Finding himself alone after years shared with a cherished friend named Long, a beautiful and witty dancer seven years his junior who wore a T.S. Eliot T-shirt when he brought Hall home to dinner to meet his disapproving Chinese family, Hall is still grappling with his lover’s death from AIDS, and with the strong-willed mother who, on their first meeting, offered Hall an out-sized hard-boiled egg with a duckling cooked inside and now has prevailed in the struggle over ownership of Long’s remains: “…your mother/for whom simple instructions were too complicated/built a tacky shrine in her living room /for the urn I mailed her./instead of scattering the ashes, as promised,/…in remote Salina.” (“Driving to Los Angeles 2. San Bernardino”).
Suffering the rock-bottom realities of an inconsolable heartache, Hall turns to Long’s last words, “whatever you do don’t turn me into poetry” and uses them as bookends for Under Sleep, (see p. 5, “Driving to Los Angeles 1. Genoa” and p. 51, “Then”), bracketing this book-length soliloquy by not so much ignoring Long’s request as forcing it to serve as the leitmotif of his grief.
Writing of their painful parting, Hall transforms that pain into images of cinematic elegance. Of their last moments together, Hall says, “None of it has gone according to plan./ I must have thought I’d play Banderas/to your Tom Hanks, kissing you goodbye, a fingertip/at a time…Instead, a vaudeville of horrors…” (“Driving to Los Angeles, 2. San Bernardino”).
Worry not. In the end, Long’s privacy is not seriously violated. While Hall does faithfully transcribe significant moments of love and rejection in their life together, he still does not want, or is not able, to bare his heart. Even the most dedicated reader will find only teasing glimpses of the sad drama haunting this book. Rendered with a cold poetic beauty, these glimpses, like shards of ice in a tropical geography of emotion, do little more than offer a transitory shimmer. Take, for example, the eyes of the cat in Hall’s poem “Baudelaire, The Cat,” (p.11) which are “…flecked and lustrous with the jeweler’s art” but “…call to mind/a lover’s ghost, whose shooting stare/is cold and bottomless,” whose skin is “…perilous.”
Under Sleep elegizes the loss of a dear friend and his elusive beauty. Overcome with the crushing loneliness of a mourner who finds himself alone in a once shared world “life begins to fill with absence,” (“Casanova”). Remembering Long in unexpected places, Hall experiences an explosion of physical desire for the statue of the fallen Christ he sees in an Italian church. “Along the way/I lusted over every village crucifixion and Pieta.(“Driving to Los Angeles 1.Genoa”). And, on another occasion, while revisiting Vegas and Los Angeles (Driving to Los Angeles 3.A Mesa, Route 1), memory turns into infatuation: “You’re at the wheel…/for once/I’ve made you laugh, and you lean back/laughing/so handsome I look away…the sun/having set in your hair; the risen/moons of your fingernails.”(Ibid.)
Hall often seems motivated more by an erotic desire for romance than for the partnering or family-making aspects of a relationship. Hearing the words of a German song, part memory, part dream, “Why do I keep coming back? Hall answers as Long would have answered, “Maybe I mean the world to you?” (Ibid.) and Hall indulgently comments, the “Diva Routine”, the way a proud parent would say of a charming child, “boys will be boys”–which is not to take away from the sincerity of his anguish and disbelief in the face of death. “You looked up vaguely/or you didn’t–even the memory/is dying. Then your whole body/breathed out, and the argument ended” (“Then”).