Eagle Pond Farm, the old house where Hall lived alone, was as decrepit as he was. When anyone suggested that he replace wallpaper or plug a hole to keep the varmints out, he said, “Let my children do it when I’m dead.” The farm had been a writers’ house for four decades, and Hall wanted to live out his years there. He wanted to die in the painted bed, a renovated family relic that, like so many others in the home, furnished his work. His second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, had died in the bed in 1995, with Hall at her side. Her death at forty-seven, of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, had been a shocking tragedy. Hall’s was more commonplace. In hospice care with sinus cancer, he died in June, at eighty-nine, before his son could carry him to the painted bed.
In Hall’s last years, as he shrank and lost his energy, he became ever more fearful of falling. He learned the hard way to take no risks. But that was off the page. Even when his capacity for work dwindled to an hour or two a day, he lived for writing, for creation. The descent into dementia of the poets he had known since the nineteen-forties and fifties magnified the gift of a clear mind. Exercising it in pursuit of a good story, the right word or phrase, the striking image or surprising transition, pleased him far more than his regular turns on a stationary bike. But he also rode the bike.
Hall wasn’t really alone at Eagle Pond Farm. Women known locally as “Hall’s Harem” exercised him and typed, cleaned, and cared for him. Pam Sanborn, his trainer, came twice a week. Carole Colburn kept house. Louise Robie from the post office ducked in the door each day to set his mail on a chair in the kitchen, a short, straight shot from his blue chair with his cane, then walker, then rollator. Linda Kunhardt, Hall’s steady girlfriend, travelled with him. It was she who first heard the term “Hall’s Harem” while mailing a package for him at the post office. When the postmaster saw Hall’s name in the return address, he asked if Kunhardt was a member. She and the others joked about the term among themselves. The spirit of the harem extended to Hall’s correspondents, agent, and editor, all eager to do whatever it took to keep him writing.
The longest standing member of Hall’s Harem was Kendel Currier, who lives in a small house seventy-five yards from the farmhouse, which lies on Route 4 in Wilmot, New Hampshire. Currier and Hall were distant cousins, and she typed his correspondence, drafts, and finished manuscripts. During his last years, she stopped by his house at six-thirty every morning to pick up the leather briefcase with the work he had left for her. Then she drove on to the mini-mart—in his eighties, Hall crashed his car twice, before surrendering his license—to buy him breakfast and a Boston Globe. The meal was always the same: sausage, egg, and cheese, on an English muffin. Because the mini-mart did not make sandwiches on Sundays, she bought two breakfasts on Saturdays. It took Hall thirty-six seconds to microwave his meal the next morning. Although he used several prescription drugs during his down periods, including an antidepressant and testosterone, Currier thought the best cure for him would be a writing project. She and others offered ideas, but nothing clicked.
“Out the Window” began with a suggestion from Carol J. Blinn, the owner of Warwick Press, in Massachusetts. In 1996, Blinn had designed, printed, and hand-bound seventy-five copies of “Ric’s Progress,” Hall’s long, prosy poem about a bad marriage. She visited him at Eagle Pond Farm so that he could sign them. From the kitchen window, she looked out upon a weathered brown barn near the venerable maple tree beside the driveway. To the right, the ribbon of Route 4, a two-lane, vanished in the distance. Fifteen years later, she did not recall these details, but, when Hall wrote to tell her he was having a hard time, she had an idea. “I told him that he lived on such a beautiful piece of land and knew it intimately, why not write about the plants, the barn, the birds that came to visit Jane’s garden.” If he wrote such a piece, she would create and illustrate another limited edition.
Hall’s essay describes the view from a different window, the one next to the blue chair in the living room, where he sat during most waking hours. The angle gave him more barn and woods, and less Route 4. He could watch the action at a bird feeder hanging on a clapboard, the only movement unless there was wind, rain, or snow. The maple tree had appeared on the cover of “Kicking the Leaves,” from 1975, the collection in which Hall began to explore the farm as an adult. Later, in “Maples,” it stood as a fragile glory in a world bent on destruction, its rope swing long gone and its demise foreshadowed by the arrival of “tree people” to lop and prune dead branches.
Hall often told audiences that the joys of sex and poetry originated from the same source. When poetry deserted him, he blamed his loss of testosterone. What he did not lose, till near the very end, was his ambition. Once he grasped the potential of an idea or inspiration, he set about executing it on the page with his time-tested method: draft, revise, show drafts to trusted advisers, and repeat. In the days of snail mail, he and Robert Bly had a rule requiring the recipient of a draft to critique it within twenty-four hours. A fax machine sped up this process, and e-mail raised Hall’s expectations of his readers even more. “Don loved to be criticized, so he could revise yet again,” Alice Mattison, one of his most faithful readers, said. “The more I responded to his work, the more of it I got to see.” He labored every morning for as long as he could, writing longhand. If he hit a wall and could not write, he changed ink color or paper type, a tactic that often worked.