Sep. 20, 2001

Her Long Illness

by Donald Hall

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Poem: "Her Long Illness," by Donald Hall from Without (Houghton Mifflin).

Her Long Illness

    Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
    while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
    He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
    on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
    they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
    over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
    at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
    which she called Igor
slowly past the nurses' pods, as far
    as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.

It's the birthday of poet and editor Donald Hall, born in New Haven, Connecticut (1928). In 1975, he bought the New Hampshire farm that had been in his family since 1865, and moved there with his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. He has written books on baseball, including the essay collection entitled, Fathers Playing Catch with Sons, prose, and biographies of the sculptor Henry Moore and the poet Marianne Moore. He has also written children's books, including Ox-Cart Man (1979), which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal, and edited more than two dozen textbooks and anthologies. Donald Hall, who said: "When I was 20, I broke up with a girlfriend after three years. Driving home in tears, I was appalled when a line for a poem popped into my head. I wasn't so appalled that I didn't write the poem." His wife Jane Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died in 1995. In 1998, Hall published Without, a book of poems Publisher's Weekly called, "a heartbreaking portrait of a marriage that death has not quite ended."

It's the birthday of poet Florence Margaret "Stevie" Smith, born in Yorkshire, England (1902). She was separated from her family for three years to recover from tuberculosis, which is perhaps why she contemplated suicide at the age of eight. This actually cheered her up, she later admitted, for, as she said, "...if one can remove oneself at any time from the world, why particularly now?" Her first book, Novel on Yellow Paper, was published in 1936. One year later, she published her first collection of verse, A Good Time Was Had By All, which contained rough sketches or doodles. She composed her last poem in 1971 as she lay dying, writing, "Come death. Do not be slow."

It's the birthday of editor Maxwell (Evarts) Perkins, born in New York City (1884). After graduating from Harvard University in 1907, Perkins went to work as a reporter for The New York Times. He did not like constantly working under deadline, however, so he began to seek a steadier schedule. He applied for a job with the conservative New York publishing house, Charles Scribner's Sons. He was hired in 1910 as advertising manager. Four years later, an opening occurred in the editorial department, and Perkins grabbed it. Then in 1919, he received a manuscript from a former Princeton student and army officer. Despite the fact that he had to fight to get it published, Perkins believed in the work of the young author, and in 1920, the book was released. It was This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which turned out to be a critical and financial success, and the start of a long association between the two. A few years later, Fitzgerald recommended that Perkins look at the work of a promising writer living in Paris. Perkins loved the manuscript, but knew that Scribner's would be reluctant to publish it with its four-letter words and shocking subject matter. He pushed it through, however, and in 1926, published Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Some of the other now-famous authors discovered by Perkins include Ring Lardner, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling), and James Jones (author of From Here to Eternity). But Perkins is perhaps best known for his relationship with Thomas Wolfe. Perkins spent months working with Wolfe until 1929, when Look Homeward, Angel was published.

It's the birthday of political figure and novelist Upton (Beall) Sinclair, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). He is perhaps best known for his book The Jungle (1906), which was intended to create sympathy for the exploited workers and instead aroused public indignation at the flagrant violations of hygienic laws and impurities in processed meats, which led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

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