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Without: Poems

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You might expect the fact of dying--the dying of a beloved wife and fellow poet--to make for a bleak and lonely tale. But Donald Hall's poignant and courageous poetry, facing that dread fact, involves us all: the magnificent, humorous, and gifted woman, Jane Kenyon, who suffered and died; the doctors and nurses who tried but failed to save her; the neighbors, friends, and relatives who grieved for her; the husband who sat by her while she lived and afterward sat in their house alone with his pain, self-pity, and fury; and those of us who till now had nothing to do with it. As Donald Hall writes, "Remembered happiness is agony; so is remembered agony." Without will touch every feeling reader, for everyone has suffered loss and requires the fellowship of elegy. In the earth's oldest poem, when Gilgamesh howls of the death of Enkidu, a grieving reader of our own time may feel a kinship, across the abyss of four thousand years, with a Sumerian king. In Without Donald Hall speaks to us all of grief, as a poet lamenting the death of a poet, as a husband mourning the loss of a wife. Without is Hall's greatest and most honorable achievement -- his give and testimony, his lament and his celebration of loss and of love.

96 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Donald Hall

166 books170 followers
Donald Hall was an American poet, writer, editor and literary critic. He began writing as an adolescent and attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at the age of sixteen—the same year he had his first work published. Donald Hall published numerous books of poetry. Besides poetry, Donald Hall wrote books on baseball, the sculptor Henry Moore, and the poet Marianne Moore. He was also the author of children's books. Hall edited more than two dozen textbooks and anthologies. His honors include two Guggenheim fellowships, the Poetry Society of America's Robert Frost Silver medal, a Lifetime Achievement award from the New Hampshire Writers and Publisher Project, and the Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry. Hall also served as Poet Laureate of New Hampshire from 1984 to 1989. In December 1993 he and his wife poet Jane Kenyon were the subject of an Emmy Award-winning Bill Moyers documentary, "A Life Together." In the June 2006, Hall was appointed the Library of Congress's fourteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

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209 (12%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 164 reviews
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books884 followers
December 19, 2020
When one person gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer. It's a long, painful ordeal with different endings for the stricken families, but certain cancers demand it, and endings they'll get.

I just read Without straight through and think Donald Hall's poetic response to poet-wife Jane Kenyon's decline under the killing effects of leukemia is one of the preeminent literary responses to cancer.

Whether you want to read a book of during and after poems about terminal cancer is another matter. Especially during the holidays, which can be peculiarly depressing on their own for some reason. Especially during the pandemic, which is uniquely depressing for families changing traditions in the names of science and safety.

On the other hand, whether you've been through the loss of family or friend due to cancer or not, this book can provide its own strange succor. You read it and feel you're not alone. You read it and realize that the poet speaks for you, in his way. You understand why so many poems are titled as "Letter to..." and are written to Kenyon after her death.

For Hall, writing these poems must have been a life saver. It's not the muse most of us would want to call on, but for writers left behind, the call is assuredly there, and writing is a key part of the long recovery process. In the end, we rest assured that "recovery," as much as can be expected, is exactly what our lost loved one would wish for us, the ones left behind.
Profile Image for tee.
199 reviews243 followers
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October 2, 2022
i must remember always that my heart is home to poetry i MUST!!!! read this collection asap it reminded me that i have to BE so agonizingly and so sweetly. grief really is the price we pay for love. oh donald
Profile Image for Jimmy.
Author 5 books199 followers
August 17, 2015
Mr. Hall tells the story of his wife Jane Kenyon dying of cancer. Heartbreaking shit.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
248 reviews
March 2, 2014
This was a library group read and I have to admit when I was first handed it, my teeth were set. "Poetry, really?" inside I said, with a deep groan! But let me say I fell in love with this "little" book and now it is in my Amazon cart to own.
I have no words for this book, so let me just quote two poems that effected me deeply, in no way the deepest but to me a couple of the most tender.

"This morning Gussie
woke me up. I let him out, fed Ada,
took Gus back in again,
and fed him. Then I went to the bathroom
to pee, and saw myself in the mirror. I had forgotten
the bald woman with
leukemia who stared back at me."

***********************************************************************

"He hovered beside Jane's bed,
solicitous; "What can I do?"
It must be unbearable
while she suffered her private hurts
to see his worried face
looming above her,
always anxious to do
something when there was
exactly nothing to do. Inside him,
some four-year-old
understood that if he was good-thoughtful,
considerate,beyond
reproach, perfect-she would not leave him."

Profile Image for Angelica.
31 reviews
November 3, 2009
"The hour/we lived in, two decades/by the pond, has transformed/into a single unstoppable day,/gray in the dwelling-place/of absence."

"If someone had told us then/you would die in nineteen years,/would it have sounded/like almost enough time?"

"I loved to turn up in your poems/I imagined those you'd make/after I died; I regretted/I wouldn't be able to read them."

A book of poems filled with adoring devotion for his wife. Honest, humble and profoundly pained observations of the process of losing and grieving.
Profile Image for Lynn Jarrett.
38 reviews21 followers
September 23, 2015
This book totally caught me by surprise. I read it late one night/early one morning without stopping. It was so raw with emotion, yet so dear to heart. I could feel the pain and grief Hall was feeling. I shed tears on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, I was reading a library book. I had to keep stopping myself from picking up a highlighter to mark passages. If you get the opportunity to read it, this book is definitely worth a couple of hours of your time.
Profile Image for Audrey.
42 reviews1 follower
May 23, 2010
One of the most touching collections of poems I have ever read. Sweet and funny and sad.
Profile Image for Samuel Fuente.
Author 1 book21 followers
October 27, 2021
Desolador es el adjetivo que viene al leerlo. No sólo merece la pena, es necesario leerlo para entender la pérdida, y si ya la entiendes, para compartir dolor en estos poemas. Es una lectura sencilla, pero llena de un dolor que se encuentra bajo esta sencillez, bajo las palabras que no se dicen, o se enuncian; o luego, en las palabras sinceras que se dicen sobre el dolor, la muerte, el sentimiento de pérdida o la necesidad de comunicarse con el ya fallecido. Es una edición bilingüe maravillosa, un gran trabajo editorial.
Profile Image for Laura Clawson.
86 reviews
May 16, 2022
These poems are good. Read in one sitting.

Donald Hall tells the story of his wife's last year through cancer and the aftermath of loss. Puts into words some of the feelings for when you love someone and they aren't present to you anymore.I am rebuked of my shallow attempts of friendship and devotion and want to grow into further fidelity after reading this.
Profile Image for Marie Chow.
Author 12 books10 followers
May 8, 2014
Cut to the Chase:
I don’t read much poetry… but what poetry I do read tends to be by Donald Hall and a handful of others. This is without a doubt my favorite single work by Hall, though it is lean, sparse, and an emotional roller coaster. Scratch that, roller coasters have ups and downs, this is a more of an emotional spiral into all of the edges and dimensions of love, death, and grief at its rawest. It is one of my favorite all time collections.

Greater Detail:
Normally, this is where I would cut and paste from a few different poems… but… this is such a tightly wound, small collection to begin with that I’m not sure it’s really appropriate. You should know that the collection is about and old, dying man, and his wife who is dying of leukemia. There is (or was) a large difference between the two and as she dies, they talk about the irony of what’s become of them — that there was a time when they always denied themselves each other because they worried about what it would be like for her to have to care for him, in his old age, to watch him die while she was still in the prime of her life. The poems here are dripping with grief that is private and all consuming. You feel a bit like a voyeur almost, but also privileged to be allowed a glimpse of such a… true, changing and intense section of someone’s life. It is not light reading, and it is not uplifting (though part of you celebrates the love they had together). But, if you enjoy poetry at all, it is truly, one of the best collections I’ve ever read.

Comparisons to Other Books:
I think that Hall is a great poet, and I think a great place to start would be White Apples and the Taste of Stone, as it gives you a wide range of his work, spanning 60 years (it also has a CD which is wonderful – I attended a reading with Hall once and there’s really nothing quite like hearing poems read by the author himself). Still, Without is by far one of the most moving books I’ve ever read, so if you only had time to read one collection of poems by Hall, I would say this should be it.
Profile Image for Patricia.
369 reviews46 followers
February 22, 2017
A moving elegy in poems by Donald Hall for Jane Kenyon, his beloved wife and fellow poet, who fought valiantly with leukemia. These poems grapple with and then embrace his loss, before and after her passing. What a marriage this must have been, to her last word ("O.K.", about his putting her letters in the box); and her last kiss:
"At eight that night,
her eyes open as they stayed
until she died, brain-stem breathing
started, he bent to kiss
her pale cool lips again, and felt them
one last time gather
and purse and peck to kiss him back."
Profile Image for Judy Blachek.
354 reviews3 followers
October 7, 2016
I have followed the career of both Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall for decades and enjoyed their thoughtful and often inspiring work very much. I was devastated as any fan when Kenyon died. This book of poetry is a raw and honest portrayal of living, dying, and grief. I am keeping this book to return to when I need it.

What a beautiful tribute to their love and relationship! I highly recommend this. I'm not a huge fan of poetry, but this is so easy to relate to.
Profile Image for Sherry Chandler.
Author 5 books27 followers
December 5, 2007
Without is an affecting book, one of the few books of poetry that I have read through at a sitting. It is not pleasant reading, I don’t know whether it is always poetry, but it is always an honest look into the heart of grief, and as such a comfort in a way to those of us who see our own grief coming.
Profile Image for Molly.
Author 6 books82 followers
November 28, 2011
I read this first for an Intermediate Poetry class as an undergrad accompanied by Jane Kenyon's Otherwise. I don't think I could quite appreciate it as I do now, on the other side of loss. I am immersing myself in these volumes of poetry now that I have my own collection of loss-poetry as I try to figure out how my own manuscript will fall into place.
Profile Image for Jessica.
65 reviews3 followers
November 19, 2010
Have I read this at least twenty times? Yes. Am I still a weeping mess after every read? Yes. Does Donald Hall know what he's doing? Yes.
Profile Image for Mary.
225 reviews1 follower
January 30, 2019
This is the most depressing book I've ever read, and I don't say that lightly. It is painful and raw from start to finish. Donald Hall wrote this volume of poems to chronicle his wife's illness and death, and no matter how sad you think that might be, go ahead and double it, because he doesn't shy away from any aspect of death's reality or the feelings it evokes. I feel like I lost someone myself, now. As much as I respect that kind of emotional honesty and willingness to forge into territory most people would shy away from, it also made me uncomfortable--which it should, but there are ways to be made uncomfortable that encourage growth and reflection, and then there are ways to be made uncomfortable that leave you curled in a ball in the dark longing for a sunny day and some fuzzy kittens. As someone who gravitates toward dark, unforgiving literature, if I think something is too depressing for me, then good luck.

Also, though I cringe a little to say it, and while there were some excellent poems in there, some of them veered a little too much toward stream-of-consciousness prose for my taste.
337 reviews44 followers
July 17, 2019
Mostly average poetry but with a lot of imagistic highlights.

Not just for the grieving, as I'm tail-ending, love and death generally.

I had thought the titular, rushing hurricane of a poem, in the place immediately after or as Jane's death, was untitled, used to seeing the titles of books at the tops of pages, satisfying my experimental structuralist urge.
Profile Image for Liz Gray.
295 reviews8 followers
December 10, 2020
Somehow I missed this collection of Donald Hall’s poems, written in the year after his wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, died. I have been missing a friend who died suddenly and expectedly last summer, feeling his loss as a pain in my solar plexus, and read this collection as a way to think about the world without him in it. Hall writes so perceptively about the moments of grief that assault him, and addresses his poems to Jane in a way that makes perfect sense. As long as he is in the world, so is she. As long as I am in the world, so is Mike.
Profile Image for J & J .
190 reviews57 followers
April 26, 2018
Quite possibly the saddest, truest poetry book I've ever read and I loved it.
281 reviews11 followers
November 18, 2020
This was vivid, poignant and emotional. The poems were beautiful. Excited to read more of his work.
Profile Image for Scott Bielinski.
146 reviews9 followers
November 29, 2022
A heart-wrenching, funny, and tragic volume of poems. Commemorative and celebratory, too. Will read again.
Profile Image for Sam.
50 reviews8 followers
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August 21, 2018
Devastating, tender and gorgeous, unflinching and flinching.
Profile Image for Anu.
368 reviews44 followers
July 30, 2022
Jane Kenyon, a talented poet, is married to her poetry teacher, Donald Hall, a man 20 years her senior. They worry when they get married that she’s going to have to suffer a long widowhood given their age gap, but decide to go ahead with it anyway. After twenty years of marital joy and togetherness, Donald is diagnosed with liver cancer and Jane fears this is the end. With a 30% chance of survival, Donald makes it through, only to see Jane diagnosed with leukaemia the next year. She dies within fifteen months, at the age of 47, leaving Donald to survive for two more decades alone with the grief of losing her. “Without” is a heart rending, poignant collection of poems, describing Donald’s experience during and after Jane’s death. Anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer will be moved deeply, going through the tenderness and horror expressed in the book. Difficult yet strangely palliative.

It is fitting that this book is included in recommended reading for medical school students in some universities. Understanding the sorrow of the dying and the horror of the loved ones that watch the patient slowly die, cannot be intuitive.
Profile Image for Kendall.
Author 33 books23 followers
May 4, 2017
As would be expected, Without is a heavy affair. It is also honest and sometimes, hard to bear. Hall's pain and grief sustains the 81 pages without veering off into too much sentimentality. It would be difficult to read this book and not feel everything he felt.
Profile Image for Robert Beveridge.
2,402 reviews145 followers
February 7, 2009
Donald Hall, Without (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)

Donald Hall is one of America's most accomplished men of letters, and never has he been more so than in Without. Published on the third anniversary of the death of his wife, the late poet Jane Kenyon, Without is split into two sections. The first details the months leading up to her death, and as expected, the poems in this section are fraught, fast-moving, tense, full of alternating hope and fear, as well as the quotidian agony of chemotherapy and imminent death:

“He woke at five, brewed
coffee, swallowed pills, injected insulin,
shaved, ate breakfast, packed
the tote with Jane's sweats he washed
at night, filled the thermos,
and left the apartment on Spring Street
to walk a block and a half
to the hospital's bone marrow floor.”
(“Her Long Illness”)

The second half consists of the epistolary poems Hall wrote in the year and a half afterward. In contrast to the first section, the fear has turned to despair, and the poems are slower, languid, at times almost suicidal:

“I wanted this assaulting winter
to end before January ended.
But I want everything to end.
I lean forward from emptiness
eager for more emptiness:
the next thing! the next thing!”
(“Midwinter Letter”)

Hall is one of those poets who is capable of taking natural language and elevating it not by changing the vocabulary he uses, but by imposing rhythm and phrasing to simply make ordinary conversation (albeit one-sided, mostly, in this case) sound as good as it possibly can. This is absolutely stunning work, and with just eight days left in the year as I write this, I feel quite safe in calling Without the best book I read in 2008. I can't recommend it highly enough. *****

657 reviews2 followers
July 22, 2014
Sometimes, when reading poetry, it takes a long time to get through, not necessarily because the poems are bad, or boring, but just because I just can't relate to them. I have never had that problem with Donald Hall's poetry, especially those that deal with the death of his wife Jane Kenyon from leukemia. Sadly, as cancer continues to eat away at the lives of people I love, I seem to relate more and more to Hall, one of my favorite contemporary American poets.

Without is the collection written about Kenyon's death, exposing the false hope, the hard cold technicality of hospital rooms, the tragedy when mother and daughter are dying at the same time. The Letter poems, epistolary poems written to Jane after her death, are especially heartbreaking and beautiful, as Hall documents his days, walking the dog, visiting grandchildren, relating the deaths and lives of mutual friends.

I had thought that Painted Beds was my favorite book of Hall's, but I think Without has surpassed it.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 8 books162 followers
January 19, 2018
This is the best collection of grief poems I have ever read. Donald Hall has always been a highly accessible poet, not esoteric, but down to earth, genuine. His poetry captures love and family and the rural experience better than almost any poet--the only comparison might be to Wendell Berry. These poems concern his wife, Jane Kenyon, a fine poet herself, and her diagnosis and eventual death from cancer. Hall captures his individual experience of struggling with Jane throughout her illness, but one can easily feel him or herself in a similar situation. His poems are a model of giving insight into universal human experience through his own particular experience. For a realistic, moving, and powerful portrait of struggling with a loved one's illness and death, I give this book my highest recommendation.
Profile Image for Aimee.
70 reviews14 followers
September 11, 2007
My friend Hartman had this book and suggested I take a look at it one night when we were over there. I am very interested in studying grief and loss so he knew I would enjoy it.

I started reading the first poem and couldn't stop. I read the whole book while we all were sitting there conversing.

It is moving, heartfelt, passionate, sad and truly a powerful book of love and friendship. I was completely taken with his words and his writing style is so beautiful and easy to read for an amateur reader like me.

If you know someone who has lost a wife/husband this would be a great book of poetry to give them.
104 reviews
July 4, 2012
This is the most powerful, poignant, beautifully written book of poetry I have ever read. These poems are written to and for Donald Hall's wife, poet Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995. Liz Rosenberg of the Boston Globe said my feelings best: "It is a remarkably beautiful and generous book, beautiful in all its terrible specifics of the daily ordeal of death, and generous to the memory of the force of life his wife possessed. The result, I think, is his strongest book yet...a work of art, love, and generous genius. "Without" is not an easy testament, but a mighty one."

I recommend it to anyone who loves poetry and has loved another human being deeply and completely.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 164 reviews

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