Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 3 of 24 books in 28 days: the best day the worst day

Filed in Books, Memoir, Writing :: February 6, 2010


Like Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (my "book 2"), Donald Hall's The Best Day the Worst Day is a writer's memoir of the death of a writer/spouse.   

Jane Kenyon was ill and treated for leukemia for fifteen months before she died, as opposed to John Gregory Dunne's sudden death from heart failure.  And whereas Didion completed her book one year and one day after Dunne's death (actually writing it, according to Wikipedia, in a little less than three months), Hall's book was published ten years after Kenyon's death.  Hall published a collection of poetry about Kenyon, Without: Poems, on the third anniversary of her death.

I've wondered about how time between events and writing about them affects what one writes.  How would any of the books I'm reading, or the one I'm writing, be different if more or less time had passed?  I'm still thinking about it–maybe I'll have an answer someday, or maybe someone will answer in the comments–anyone, please?

If I ask of Hall's memoir the question of how he and Kenyon "did" marriage, I think it answers in two ways:

"With rare exceptions, we remained aware of each other's feelings.  It took me half my life, more than half, to discover with Jane's guidance that two people could live together and remain kind." 

He makes a similar observation about the importance of kindness and consideration earlier in the book, and I agree with him that it's a worth restating. 

He also writes about the importance of a couple's having a "third thing" at which to look together.  A third thing could be children, pets, travel, church, any number of things, but he concludes that for him and Kenyon, the primary third thing was poetry:

"Of course: the third thing that brought us together, and shone at the center of our lives and our house, was poetry–both our love for the art and the passion and frustration of trying to write it."

The book is about how he grieved the loss of his wife, but he also writes about how he and Kenyon "did" grief during various losses during their twenty years together, and again he goes to poetry:

"When someone died whom we loved, we went back to the poets of grief and outrage, as far back as Gilgamesh; often I read aloud Henry King's "The Exequy," written in the seventeenth century after the death of his young wife.  Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief.  Poetry embodies the complexity of feelings at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears."

As for how Hall "does" memoir, he uses an alternating chapter structure.  He says that when he and Kenyon gave poetry readings together, they alternated, ABAB, taking turns at being A and B, and he uses that ABAB structure here.

The first chapter concerns Kenyon's death and funeral, and then in the second chapter he moves back in time not to the beginning of their relationship or the beginning of their marriage, but to the time three years after their marriage when they moved to Eagle Pond, where they would live together until Kenyon's death and where Hall still lives.  Then in the third chapter he goes to Kenyon's diagnosis of leukemia, and in the fourth to how they met, and so on, alternating chapters focusing on the pre-leukemia years and the last fifteen months of their marriage. 

He contrasts the two phases of their lives:

"It was Leukemia Day, to be repeated for fifteen months.  In our twenty years at Eagle Pond, Jane and I lived by routine, repeating the same motions in our big old house, schedules of work and love, reading and gardening.  Now the schedule was nausea and dread, elevators and cafeteria, boredom and panic and occasionally relief."

Hall is frequently poetic, and I found myself underlining simply for the beauty of his language.  A few examples:

Regarding the funeral, "I embraced two hundred people beset by a remediless disappearance."

Regarding an evening spent alone in a Days Inn while Jane was in a nearby hospital, he mentions a "tubal basketball game dimly observed."

And finally, he writes, in the book's epilogue, "Today, ten years
after her death, her poems endure.  So do I, still at Eagle Pond Farm,
where Jane fills the air around me like a rainy day."

Filed in Books, Memoir, Writing


  1. whollyjeanne

    i enjoy memoirs written in the voice of immediacy, and i enjoy memoirs that have been distilled by time. with time, edges soften, colors fade, an we are left with what’s most important to the author. this is one i’ve fondled. now i am inspired to pick it up an actually read it.

  2. Shirley

    Lovely idea to read in depth and rapid succession with the same set of questions. I will want readers of http://www.100memoirs to know about all 24 of these reviews. You definitely made me want to read this one.