Sep. 20, 2005

The Old Life (excerpt)

by Donald Hall

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Poem: excerpt from "The Old Life" by Donald Hall, from The Old Life. © Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with permission.

excerpt from The Old Life

There are miseries
of childhood that an old man's mind—alien
in the hour of injections
and restraints, ignorant of what
day or season it is—
will clutch to itself with angry tears.
I wanted a Mickey Mouse
watch as much as, later in life,
I wanted a job,
a prize, or a woman. It disappeared
a month after my fifth
birthday, and sixty years afterward
I grieve for it whenever
I regret something lost.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1519 that Ferdinand Magellan set out with his armada of five ships and 237 men on what became the first known voyage around the globe. Magellan was out to claim the Spice Islands for Spain. He had no idea how far he'd have to travel. The best-known map at the time placed Japan just a few hundred miles off of Mexico. Magellan's ships were small, and they were not of the best quality, but they reached South America by winter and began to sail south along the coast. The men began to see strange new animals, including birds that they called "ducks without wings," now known as penguins.

They met a very tall tribe of people who herded llamas, and Magellan nicknamed them "patagones" from the Spanish for "big feet." And that piece of South America became known as Patagonia.

They almost turned back a dozen times, but they finally saw a narrow passage like the mouth of a river. They followed it to the other side, and they found themselves in a much calmer sea, which Magellan named the Pacific Ocean.

Magellan estimated that they would reach the Spice Islands in a few days. The weather was perfect for sailing, and everyone was hopeful. But days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and the ships began to run out of food. Somehow, Magellan managed to sail past nearly every single island in the South Pacific, so there was no way to get more food. The men were reduced to eating oxhides and llama skins, and many died of starvation. They finally reached their destination in March, three and a half months after rounding the tip of South America.

Magellan himself died on one of the islands, trying to convert the local people to Christianity by force. Of the five original ships, only one made the entire journey back to Spain, carrying seventeen men, the only survivors of the original 237. As a reward, the captain of that single remaining ship was given a globe with a Latin inscription that said, "Thou first circumnavigated me."

It's the birthday of the novelist Upton Sinclair, born in Baltimore (1878). In 1904, he spent two months working in a meat packing plant to investigate the industry. He was horrified by the working conditions and wrote his novel The Jungle (1906) that made him famous and which led to federal regulation of the meat packing industry.

It's the birthday of the poet Ray Gonzalez, born in El Paso (1952). He's the author of the short story collection The Ghost of John Wayne and the editor of numerous anthologies of Latino literature.

It's the birthday of the great editor Maxwell Perkins, born in New York City (1884), who edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

And today is the birthday of the poet Donald Hall, born in New Haven (1928). He's the author of many collections of poems, including The Museum of Clear Ideas, and The Old Life, The Painted Bed, and a collection of stories, Willow Temple, published a year ago.

He grew up listening to his grandfather reciting long narrative poems like "Casey at the Bat," as he sat on a three-legged stool milking his Holsteins. Donald Hall's first literary hero was Edgar Allen Poe. He said, "I wanted to be mad, addicted, obsessed, haunted and cursed; I wanted to have eyes that burned like coals, profoundly melancholy, profoundly attractive."

He taught for 17 years at the University of Michigan and then decided to quit and live by his wits and move to a farm in New Hampshire that had been in his family for generations.

Donald Hall said, "I try every day to write great poetry—as I tried when I was 14. What else is there to do?"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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