The facts are hard but simple. In 1994, Jane Kenyon--who at 46 was beginning to enjoy the growing recognition of her work--was diagnosed with leukemia. Kenyon and Hall opted for the harrowing bone marrow transplant, to be performed in Seattle. It was not successful, and 12 weeks later, she was dead. Hall began drafting Without during the procedure and subsequent treatment, an act almost impossible to imagine--or perhaps for a poet, the only act possible in the face of what for most would be unspeakable. The magnitude of such suffering might indeed explain the collection's flatness of tone, as if grief can be touched only across great distances.
However restrained the pieces, Hall's gaze is fearless. Shifts in voice (he writes both in first and third person) create a tension that pulls the reader forward, as if compelled to consume this moving, raw account in one sitting. The quality of reader attention is more akin to what one gives a story. Narrative elements include a terse account of the bone-marrow transplant and Kenyan's subsequent radiation treatments ("It was as if she capped the Chernobyl pile with her body"), and it's here that the poems become almost unbearable to read.
Without captures the tedium of dying, jolted by surges of rage and "witless" love. Numbly, it lists the flinty details of Kenyon's last days, spent choosing the poems for her last volume, Otherwise: New & Selected Poems. It describes the moment of her dying in a way that makes one wonder if the ultimate experience of intimacy is to watch the beloved die, to be the one to close her eyes. "Back home from the grave," Hall writes toward the end of this volume, "behind my desk I made / a gallery of Janes," but it can be said that every poem presents a facet of his wife while dying, accruing finally to a gallery of love and grief.
There are some distinguishing jolts to our familiar concepts about death as in, for example, the poem showing the couple, with their minister, praying and holding hands. And when they prayed, "grace was evident / but not the comfort of mercy or reprieve / The embodied figure / on the cross still twisted under the sun." By and large, however, it's a volume not remarkable for bold imagery or shocking connections; rather for the expression of raw grief that follows, unwelcome, all of our necessary losses. --Hollis Giammatteo