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What We're Reading Now: "The Museum of Clear Ideas," by Donald Hall

I discovered only a few years ago that I love baseball. I discovered the poet Donald Hall right about the same time and in kind of the same place. Hall, a die-hard Red Sox fan, was featured in Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary, Baseball. It was a pleasant synchronicity, then, that I started reading Hall’s The Museum of Clear Ideas just as I was starting to miss baseball (less than a month after the season ended), and that the book includes a nine inning poem called “Baseball” and an epilogue of “Extra Innings.” For Hall, looking back from age 65, the sport has provided pleasurable, predictable respite in a life often buffeted by dread and grief. He writes: “Baseball is not my work. It is my / walk in the park, my pint of bitter, / my Agatha Christie or Zane Grey…”

The book’s title sequence of poems, “The Museum of Clear Ideas,” is patterned after The Odes of Horace. Recurring characters are given code-names like Mister Zero, Glaucus, and Fidelia. Hall becomes Horsecollar, with Bic in hand, and his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, becomes Camilla.

…Horsecollar occupies his mornings
with a chisel, concentrating his stylus on language,
cutting square letters into stone, to avoid thinking
about aging, death, sexual loss, the countryside’s
vanishing, replacement of affection by greed,
Mister Zero’s prophylactic smirking dog-cynicism,
betrayals of love, and disappearance of the good
mothers and sisters, brothers and fathers, into dirt.

We’re told “Horsecollar prefers / chatting in Latin” – and so the syntax of Hall’s poetry can be challenging, especially compared to the more colloquial style of his friend Wendell Berry, whose poetry I’ve immersed myself in this year. (Berry’s collection, A Timbered Choir, was dedicated to Hall.) Thus, The Museum of Clear Ideas is a book that does not offer up its treasures without work. But when I slowed down and re-read the poems, often out loud to myself, late at night when Kate and Molly were asleep, I found veins of gold. As one of my Goodreads friend recently confirmed, Donald Hall is the kind of poet  I should come back to again and again – a lifetime of reading, for a lifetime of rewards.

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