by Chandra Ganguly
Aging and memories are part of the human landscape, tied together in a way that gives meaning to the whole human endeavour. Donald Hall sweeps across this metaphorical landscape with aplomb even as he describes his life in his aging body, the meaning of loss of a partner and loss of the functions of the human body. It is a book of nostalgia, but importantly, it is a book of courage, replete with the particular humour and intelligence of an unfading mind, a mind that is perhaps tired but in no way diminished or reduced by the aging body. There are memoirs galore on age and aging but what makes this particular collection, Essays after Eighty, stand out, is the humor.
The author spares nothing his gaze falls on, least of all himself. The pathos in the way he recalls his life is touching but in no way does it invoke pity. Humour as a device carries these essays into the sunset. He begins the collection describing the standing ovations his lectures now receive. Having just witnessed one such standing ovation at Bennington where he gave a lecture to a packed hall, it made me smile to read the raison d’etre of these standing ovations as, “The audience had just seen me stagger, waver with a cane, and labor to sit down, wheezing. They imagined my grandfather horrified, watching a cadaver gifted with speech. They stood and applauded because they knew they would never see me again.” (p.50) America’s erstwhile poet laureate is self-deprecating, his charm is in his humility, and his intelligence shines through in his dry humour. Even his wife, whose dying he still mourns deeply, is described as, “The more successful her poetry became, the more she permitted herself to be pretty.” (p.54)