Lunar New Year Reads, #49: The Painted Bed by Donald Hall

The Painted Bed is a strong, hard book. It is painful, because, as one soon realizes, the title announces its theme, only a few pages into the book, is the deathbed of the poet’s wife, the bed of their sleeping, their dreams, the love and their sex in life, and the site of his wife’s passage into the dark realms as well.

The book reads as a slow progression from outright grief, through the aftermath of a wife’s death, then into a kind of frame-cut — a jump to a bigger perspective, all the living and dying and movement of history in the area in which they lived together, and in which the narrator passed much of his life — and finally into a kind of accepting, moving-on-without-leaving kind of state.

The mourning in this book is powerful because, while it is respectful, it is also honest. The old man who mourns his lost wife dreams of their sex, admits when her scent begins to die, speaks honestly of the struggle to move on, of women who come after her and his reticence to love them. An uncareful reader would think him an uncareful writer, to go into lurid details of his sex life with “Katie” toward the end of a book about “Jane”, but in fact, it makes the point of the book all the more clear: if, as the epigrammatic quote from Faiz Ahmed Faiz claims, “The true subject of poetry / is the death of the beloved,” then this death is not only the death of one person, but of a substantial portion of the person who loves them as husband or wife, as well. The last half of Hall’s last poem in the book, “Affirmation”, ties this together. The transitoriness of “new women” is the transitoriness of life; new women cannot matter once the wounds of those great losses of devoted love, the marriage or marriages of a young man have turned to wreckage on the beach of time’s shore. Glimpsing our own mortality only occasionally, living in ignorance of it, deaths of those we love, those around us, those we don’t love, too, bring up a kind of dark, continuous awareness which we must accept, and which we can accept — and, the poem suggests, which we can even relish as rightful, fitting, and delicious.

Personally, I prefer the shorter poems to the two long ones in this book; this is partly because I enjoy Hall’s play with forms, masterful as it sometimes is, but I also kind of get lost in his longer poems, and find the words are less carefully laid out — he moves almost into prose at points, in my opinion. While this may be in vogue now, it’s not quite the kind of thing I’m into myself, in verse. But that said, it’s the best book I’ve read on the subject since C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and I think it is, certainly, superior to it in Hall’s gripping honesty, his shameless insistence on the necessity of confronting the brutal totality, and the fact that he carries us through years of mourning, as opposed to Lewis’ months of mourning, all at arm’s length. Lewis, to me, felt like someone come back from the dead and telling me what he wanted me to know of his travel in the Underworld; but with Hall, I felt more as if he were Virgil, leading me through the muck and pain and smoke and darkness of his mourning, and giving me a much more real and honest picture of it, because more complete.

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