White Apples and the Taste of Stone (Donald Hall)

4.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
I don’t like poetry. I try to avoid reading poems because usually, I have the same reaction reading poems as I do when staring at abstract art: huh?  But this is a selection of poems from 60 years of writings.  They are intensely emotional, sparsely written, beautiful poems from the former poet laureate, and well worth the read.

Greater Detail:
I’m going to rely heavily on my favorite excerpts from Hall’s book since I think that sometimes, deciding whether or not to try out a particular poet, you really have to see the poems, rather than hear someone else’s opinions (though my thoughts are also sprinkled throughout).

Hall has a very clear, narrative style, and this collection follows his life from young adult to older widower.  He opens with:

Old man remembers to old man
How bat struck ball upon this plain,

Hall’s poems are often self-reflective, almost memoir-like, and talk about everything, from baseball and family to the loss of his wife (poet Jane Kenyon) to being a poet:


These are women whose husbands I meet on airplanes,
who close their briefcases and ask, “What are you in?”
I look in their eyes, I tell them I am in poetry,
and their eyes fill with anxiety, and with little tears.
‘Oh yeah?’ they say, developing an interest in clouds.
‘My wife, she likes that sort of thing? Hah-hah?
I guess maybe I’d better watch my grammar, huh?’
I leave them in airports, watching their grammar.

Hall writes with honesty and a nostalgia that seems sentimental without being manipulative, especially during the letters he writes to his wife, after her death:


Remembered happiness is agony;
so is remembered agony.
I live in a present compelled
by anniversaries and objects:
your pincushion; your white slipper;
your hooded Selectric II;
the label basil in a familiar hand;
a stain on flowery sheets.”

But it’s not all sad and depressing; Hall has an incredible, irreverent sense of humor that also comes out:

‘Dead people don’t like olives,’
I told my partners in eighth grade
dancing class, who never listened
as we foxtrotted, one-two, one-two

The dead people I often consulted
Nodded their skulls in unison
While I flung my black velvet cape
Over my shoulders and glowered
From deep-set, burning eyes,
Walking the city streets, alone at fifteen,
Crazy for cheerleaders and poems…

I’ve tried to give just sections to various poems (no complete ones) to give you a sense of the range of topics and styles that Hall writes with.  Very little of it is abstract; most of it is narrative, straightforward, almost plainspoken, but very effective in the emotions it stirs.

Comparisons to Other Books:
For anyone unfamiliar with Hall as a poet, I think this is a great place to start, as it gives you a wide range of his work, spanning 60 years.  Also, the CD is wonderful – I attended a reading with Hall once and there’s really nothing quite like hearing poems read by the author himself.  If you like this, or are just looking for a smaller sample of Hall’s work, I would recommend Without, which is one of the most moving books I’ve read and details Hall’s emotions and life after his younger wife passes away.  

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Posted in Literary Fiction

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