9.28.2004

Hazel Hall, Peculiar Poetess

Curtains, by Hazel Hall
Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1920

The Walkers, by Hazel Hall
Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1923

Cry of Time, by Hazel Hall, ed. Ruth Hall
1928

Selected Poems by Hazel Hall, ed. Beth Bentley
Ahsahta Press, 1980
ISBN 0-916272-14-1

The Collected Poems of Hazel Hall, ed. John Witte
Oregon State University Press, 2000
ISBN 0-87071-478-3

Hazel Hall's story, within her poetry and without, defies the imagination. She was confined to a wheelchair from age 12. The family moved to Portland, Oregon, and her father died soon after the move. The family was reduced to poverty. Her mother and sisters apparently confined her to the attic of their home. A single window in the attic looked out over a treetop. Hazel balanced a small mirror on the window sill in order to see a reflection of the streetscape from her chair as she worked. She writes, "I am holding up a mirror / To look at life." ("The Hand-Glass," p. 9) Her first book is called Curtains after the curtains on that window. Her second book is called Walkers: the poems describe the people she saw walking past the house, reflected in her mirror. Since Hall could not walk, the poems in Walkers reveal a particularly poetic obsession with the sounds of footsteps, the act of walking, and metrical feet.

For many years, she took in sewing to try to support herself and her sisters: she specialized in very complex embroidery, decorating lingere, liturgical garments, collars, and bridal gowns until, as a direct result of this work, she lost most of her eyesight. Her sisters were apparently jealous of her contact with the outside world or perhaps the money she spent on postage (she had some literary correspondences, including one with Vachel Lindsay, and received some journals, but no poets are reported to have visited her) and limited the errands they ran for her. Despite this, she won many poetry prizes, including one from Poetry Society of America. Modernist journals as The Dial and Poetry published her poems during her lifetime. A number of poetry prizes in Oregon are named for her. Her family did not assist her in gathering a manuscript together or in reading to her from the time her eyesight made reading and writing difficult until her death at 38. Two weeks before she died in 1924, she had a dream forecasting her death. In final desperation, wrote a manuscript, Cry of Time, which was published four years after she died.

The poems are striking because the bare facts of the poet's miserable situation are also powerful topos. Hall's poems are intricate craft objects, like needlework. The composition of poetry is stitching words together with their associated meanings. It is also painful. Life is observed at several removes, through a window, mirror, or dream. For Hall, "the other" has interchange with people and the world (I imagine Frank O'Hara, doing this, doing that, in a New York walk, as her other), who is alive. She seems to have had no human contact with intellectual peers. She shows a jealous disdain of her clients, brides who trousseaus she sews ("Monograms," pps. 46-7), people who walk, people who have life experience, etc. Perversely, an Oregonian writer turned her life story into a stage play, called Monograms.

Curtains begins with a dedicatory, "I have curtained my window with filmy seeming," but it seems more filmic than "filmy": she defines her subject as appearance, and she goes on the write that this definition allows her to observe, although "Before the words than loud rains utter" her appearances are disturbed. Having defined her situation, Hall begins her poems with the dismal "Frames," which begins, "Brown window-sill, you hold all of my skies." The last (second) stanza:

Grey walls, my days are bound within your hold,
Cast there and lost like pebbles in a sea;
And all my thought is squared to fit your mould --
Grey wall, how mighty is your masonry!

p. 2

The misery which is Hall's world continues. The fantasy of "June Night" personified as a fairy goddess or bride ends, "She went as though with a quick fear / Of the eternal winters here." (p. 3) Dickinson is a positively social butterfly compared to Hall; she reads, in an incredible library; visitors visit her; she cooks; she plants herb gardens. The nature in Hall is reduced to a few trees, some ivy, landscapes recalled from childhood, and occasional cut flowers. She writes, "I can ... make a never-flower beautiful / by thinking of tulips growing in window-boxes." ("After Embroidering," p. 71) She embroiders floral designs, not flowers; the real flowers she uses as models are imagined domesticated flowers.

Within the poems, it is the "Needlework" poems of her first book where something can be said to be happening. She also conveys the sense of having "used up" the sights in her room in the first section of Curtains. The third section of Curtains is called "Spring from a Window."

In Walkers she tracks passerby from when their footfalls become audible to when their footfalls are not longer audible; this culminates in the repetitions in "Footfalls," which carry the poem forward by their sound, although as sheer statement, the words contradict all the other poems:

I have loved,
And having loved, walk well.
I move not as I once, a lover, moved...

p. 111

Listen,
Listen, listen, listen.
Spend your hearing listening
To the utterance of my feet --

p. 115

Also in "Footfalls," she displays her frustration with her view, and perhaps with imagism:

The tip of fir,
And it is colored green,
Over a shiny roof is seen.
And who needs more, even if there were
Something more than the tip of a fir?
And who would think, even if they could,
Of roots and trunks that have stood, have stood
Through -- but who would care howmany springs --
Even if there were such things?
Over a roof
The feathery green
Tip of a fir
Is seen,
Seen....

p. 114

In Cry of Time, she writes about her own body as it is dying, telling us how she is erased. She becomes disembodied, and her room is erased, "Wash over her, wet light / Of this dissolving room." ("Woman Death," p. 198) She grows quiet, "What was my drink and meat / is now my need. / Only is hunger sweet / To those who feed." ("The Silent Bard," p. 208) Her senses fail, and writes she has become insensible to beauty and to weather, which she associates with words, as she still writes, rhythmically, "... It is an ache / Grown numb: incurious love of flame / Upon the unseen hearth, the near / Beat of rain you do not hear." ("The Relinquisher," p. 209) She begins her second-to-last poem, "Protest":

As quiet moves upon me.
It is not drifting snow.
Like snow it chills my mouth,
And brings my breathing low.
It moves like sand against me,
Cleaning, covering.
It is not sand; it is
Not anything.

p. 216

Hazel Hall is not a Georgian poet; her obsessions and her themes carried her well into the poetics and metapoetics of modernist poets of her time. Her world is a totally female world, and so it is marked differently than a world which includes men or sex or male family members. She is peculiarly a poetess, one who wrote movingly about her own life of confinement and frustration, but who never balanced life and art because she never had the opportunity to have a life as we would understand one.

The first book, Curtains, is in the public domain, and will be available in its entirety free online at Project Gutenberg in a matter of weeks. Ahsahta Press at Boise State published a small Selected pamphlet in 1980. The selection was made by Beth Bentley, who also wrote an introductory essay. The collected volume returns the last two volumes of Hall's poetry to print.

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