5 out of 5 stars
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.
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.