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Introduction

Over and under,
Under and out.
Thread that is fibre,
Thread that is stout.

I'm not singing;
I'm sewing ...

("Stitches")

We enter a poem by Hazel Hall through a narrow space, often the space of the room in which she was confined, which opens outward into a vivid, often oceanic space, only to return again:

I was sewing a seam one day--
just this way--
Flashing four silver stitches there
With thread, like this, fine as a hair,
And then four here, and there again,
When
The seam I sewed dropped out of sight...
I saw the sea come rustling in,
Big and grey, windy and bright...
Then my thread that was as thin
As hair, tangled up like smoke
And broke.
I threaded up my needle, then--
Four here, four there, and here again.

("Scants")

Hall's poems seem on their surfaces tidy, sometimes as strictly and gorgeously embellished as her needlework. Yet close under their surfaces we sense the seething of a restless intelligence. Beginning with the materials at hand-her limited mobility, her isolation and loneliness, her gifts with needlework and words, and her exquisite grief--Hazel Hall fashioned in the short span of her career a poetry of startling achievement and durability. Her three books, reprinted here, are filled with deep silences and singing, portents and lamentations, sensuaI delights, resignation and compassion. Although sometimes dated in their diction, in their diction, and now and then verging on the sentimental, the poems are more often strikingly modern, gazing on the world and its glitter of sterility.

"The facts of my sister's life were few," wrote Ruth Hall.1 Were it not for the discreet and eloquent letters that Ruth supplied to curious editors and critics, we might know very little about Hazel Hall. Moreover, as Ruth explained, "since my sister was fond of silence and its larger meanings, she heartily disliked discussions of herself as an individual. Rather she would want her poetry to speak of herself."2

A few facts are known. Hazel Hall was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on February 7, 1886, and moved to the bustling young city of Portland, Oregon, as a small child. She had two sisters, Ruth and Lulie. An exuberant, unusually sensitive and imaginative child, she would have experienced keenly the nearby ocean and the dense forests that are such commanding presences in the lives of Northwesterners. But at the age of twelve, following a bout of scarlet fever, possibly complicated by a fall, she was confined to a wheelchair. She lived out her life in an upper room of the family's house on 52 Lucretia Place, overlooking the sidewalk and its passersby, able to smell the ocean on the breeze through her window, seeing the top of a fir tree over an adjacent building, watching birds pass, and the change's of light, the passing seasons. To better observe the world outside, she positioned a small mirror on the sill.

A visitor described her eyes as "large and dark. She seldom smiled--though she was not sad. Her forehead was very broad and full.... She propelled herself in a wheel chair--an ill body confining her within the four walls of her home."3 Because she was unable to attend school, Hall's formal education ended in the fifth grade. But she continued to read widely, though not "to excess," writes Ruth. "Her own mind was able to furnish her with a kind of instinctive wisdom."4 She was interested in philosophy and was known to be slowly reading through a history of the field.

To help with family finances, Hall took in sewing. She acquired skill in needlework, and gainfully occupied herself embroidering the sumptuous fabrics of bridal gowns, baby dresses, altar cloths, lingerie, and Bishop's cuffs that figure so lushly in her poems. But early in her twenties, taxed by the strain of needlework, her eyesight began to fail, and she turned to writing poems. The first of these, "To an English Sparrow," appeared in the Boston Transcript in 1916, when she was thirty years old, with only eight more years to live. "Her writing-day," reports Ruth, "began usually about noon and lasted until quite late at night.... A very sure line of poetry would flash into her mind, and with this as a nucleus she reared a poem."5

Other publications followed, in Harper's, The Century, The Bookman, Yale Review, and New Republic. In 1920, her poem "Three Girls" was selected as one of the best poems of the year, and she won first prize for poems published in Contemporary Verse. Her first book, Curtains, appeared in 1921. In that year the Anthology of Magazine Verse included nineteen of her poems. A group of her needlework poems received the "Young Poet's Prize" from Poetry, and she continued to enjoy the favor of its editor, Harriet Monroe. Walkers soon followed, in 1923. In the anthology Best Poems of the Year, her work began to reach an audience in England. Cry of Time, her last book, assembled by her sister Ruth, appeared posthumously in 1928.

Despite her growing recognition in the early 1920s, Hazel Hall's isolation and privacy remained undisturbed. Her correspondence with editors and other writers was tentative. She hoped for a visit from Vachel Lindsay, a writer whom she admired, and was bitterly disappointed when it did not occur. She avidly read in the journals the poems of her contemporaries, as well as current literary criticism. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie were among her favorite poets, along with Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. Yet her own writing is not haunted by these poets, and influence on Hazel Hall is not easy to discern. Certainly the Georgian poetics of a writer such as Sara Teasdale, a perfumed and pictorial verse in hymnbook metrics, absent of irony, could speak little of the hardships of Hall's life. Nor would she pretend to the worldliness and sophistication of Millay and Wylie and the emancipated women of the twenties) though her poems are at times more frankly sensual than theirs. 6Finally, we sense in her work more of the autumnal clarity of Robert Frost, and the fierce ambivalence, synesthesia, and transcendental longing of Emily Dickinson.

 

Hall's strategy for escaping her confinement is nowhere more evident than in her first book, Curtains We are invited into a darkened, turbulent room, a place of "eternal winter," the outside world of sun) sky, and footsteps all ghostly, echoes and flickering shadows on the sill and walls. Shut in "where rooms are prison places,"7 she addresses poems to the door, the floor, window, and stairway. She addresses her feet, unable to transport her."Of all my room," she laments) "the floor alone / Is not mine." Finally, in "Things That Grow," she recognizes that she must be rooted somewhere in the world in order to exfoliate and awaken "the shining interest of the sky."

Her longed-for roots, and paradoxical means of escape, are into the fertile ground of language, and "fancy," the transforming activity of the liberated imagination. "Counterpanes," her first needlework Poem, announces this breakthrough: "I will make myself new thought." Her counterpane is assembled from poem-patches, her "quilt of many hues" that will protect her from the "smothered whine/ Of four grey walls' grey wind." Hall finds in the enforced silence a creative source and solace, obliterating "vague realities," and uncertainties. "Now at last with glamour gone," she says, "I can see the naked dawn." Though skepticism and despair continue to darken and threaten her vision, her course is set.

As both seamstress and poet, Hall enjoyed the fortuitous coincidence of two activities that continuously, ingeniously, referred to and informed each other, an interplay of song and stitch. In the needlework poems, Hall's life and her art effortlessly converge, resulting in breathtaking sorties beyond her window, into the world of our shared experience. "Knitting Needles," the first of this sequence, chronicles the recognition of a calling, as the author sorts through her great-grandmother's "trunkful of remembering things,"

But the most remembering of all are her knitting needles
They are made of black bone
And gleam with sudden creamy light, like lacquer
When I touch them
They are cold with the death of many years
Then quickly they take on a sensuous warmth,
And Speak under my knitting hands

Sewing in the ghostly company, Hall identifies in her great-grandmother a muse who instructs her to stitch and speak, releasing her briefly from the confines of her room. Through the ritual of sewing, Hall recovers the memories and vivid sensations of her childhood. Her sensuality is rediscovered, and with it a sexual insistence presses up through poems such as "Lingerie" and "Filet Crochet," a possibility that is reluctantly denied, her needle "strangling tight, / Choking out anything that might" climb the trellis to her window. Through needlework, however, Hall was able to transform her loss into something of value, utility, and beauty. Having sewn (and written) all day, she would have by tomorrow, "something sorrow has made."

The Needlework poems are metrically freer in form than the work preceding or following them. Ellipses and dashes, reminiscent of Dickinson's, proliferate. We sense that the urgency and originality of these poems will not be confined within her usual prosodic constraints. And the imagery is more daring:

My hands are motion; they cannot rest
They are the foam upon the sea...
("Sewing Hands")

Startling for their range and reach, the sewing poems become at times oracular, foreseeing the eventual death of the bride for whom she sews in "Monograms," and even the baby in "A Baby's Dress." In "Late Hours," she sees the fate of the passerby, "I know each pulsing tread / Is spinning out a life's fine thread."

In "Bead Work," Hall creates a facsimile of her lost world, picking up beads like "lobes of light," choosing the color and form of wood and leaves. Elsewhere, she breathes life into the cross-stitched macaws, which are"alert and listening." In "Habit," the poet gazes from her window at the night sky and begins reflexively to "feather-stitch a ring around the moon." And the world reciprocates in "Heavy Threads," stitching her, at dawn the "hours of light / ... about to thrust themselves into me / Like omnivorous needles into listless cloth." The myth of Arachne, which is likely to have been familiar to Hazel Hall, suggests itself here. A simple girl, Arachne had the gift for weaving tapestries so lifelike that the forms seemed to breathe and move. Like a goddess, she had the power to create the world. But so great was her hubris that she challenged Athene, goddess of spinning, weaving, and needlework, to a contest of their skills. Enraged not only by Arachne's audacity, but also by her accomplishment, and not wishing to destroy such a gift, Athene changed the girl into a spider. Hall's frequent comparison of the thread of her stitches to her own hair suggests that, like Arachne, she is sewing out of herself. The poet as spider, her web ruined by death, will appear later in the poem "Intelligence" from Cry of Time.

Beginning with artifacts and stories of her grandmother and her great-grandmother, Hall's memory grows ever more inclusive, coming to involve all working and sorrowing women, sewing together in concert:

Other hands are teaching
MY needle; when I sew
I feel the cool, thin fingers
Of hands I do not know.

...

All the tired women
Who sewed their lives away,
Speak in my deft fingers
As I sew to-day.

("Instruction")

In poems like "Defeat"and, especially, "Late Sewing," the final poem in the needlework sequence gorgeous descending figures , recapitulate Hall's despairing sense of the futility of artistic creation, and its presumption. Perhaps mindful of Arachne's fate, Hall describes her singing and sewing as "a little travesty on life," a work so flawed and inadequate that it manages only a grotesque imitation of reality. The dark bouquet of April poems that concludes Curtains reiterates her foreboding that her art will be found insufficient, that the "counterpane" of her poems will finally be torn away by the smothering grey wind. In these final poems, April "chokes me with fragrance" and closes "like a hand around my throat." Hazel Hall's confrontation with death will be played out in the danse macabre of her last book, Cry of Time.

The subject of needlework that illuminates Curtains will not, except for occasional mention, be returned to again. When Hall stopped sewing-her eyesight failing-she appears to have stopped writing about sewing and turned her attention outward to the mysterious otherness of the walkers passing beneath her window. Where Curtains was a private, and interior book, Walkers is populated, at times even crowded. The pedestrians, each singular, each given an individual poem, are sometimes real, yet at other times seem ghostly figments or projections. In "A Boy Went By," the child is present in the flesh, "inimitable" and "inviolate." But the old woman who follows in the next poem is clothed in "stricken sound /And shadow" like a shroud.

Walkers is a book of longing, and reaching out, for human fellowship. In Curtains, Hall worked through, and grew weary of, the possibilities for transcendence and transformation, exhausting, in "After Embroidering," even the sewing trope. She could work into cloth a clever imitation of a landscape:

But if I go farther,
If I follow the path,
Fling out the gate,
Plunge one breathless thought over an horizon...
My hands lose their cunning.

In Walkers, in poems such as "Three Girls" and "Walking," Hall projects herself imaginatively through her window, vicariously walking and communing with others. She creates for each a sly variation on the walker's andante music, tripping iambs for the young, shuffling dactyls for the old, hesitations, meanderings, or stridings forward, "motion, and [in her poem] echoed motion."

Time blows like an eroding wind over and through the lives of the walkers, and through the poems--everything is fleeting, passing, dying. A powerful long sequence at the heart of this book, "Footfalls," reads like the poet's requiem for herself, and a triumphal summation of her life and wisdom. "There's a better way / To die," she asserts, "than to die of sorrow."

And whatever the dying be,
Companioned by winds that stalk
Beside us undyingly,
Let us walk, walk....

("Footfalls V")

The spectral walkers drifting through these poems arouse in Hall a radical modernist uncertainty: do others exist at all for us, and in what way? These same insubstantial others might have stepped from a page of Fernando Pessoa or T.S. Eliot. Masks and self-deception, identity and the danger of losing it, become central concerns: we "strive to find and struggle to hold / The meaning of [our] own identity." The poems are darkened by portents, dangers, and warnings, our fates "whirring" around us like dust on the street. Hall saw the human condition as yoked and dumb, linking us to each other and to death, and this knowledge "weighs unbearably" on her. Children, especially, in poems such as "A Child On the Street" and "At the Corner," are pursued by "relentless destinies." The footfalls of the walkers become a dark drumbeat, a death march: "the truth your feet speak to the ground."

Hazel Hall's compassion extended even to walkers as yet unborn. In "They Will Come,"" "the sound of their tread is a cry / Moving along my mind," and she sorrows proleptically for them:

All that others have known of longing and pain
Will be immeasurably theirs; they must reckon and face
Rapture unknown, then pass like the rain
Drifting on into space.

A deep uneasiness weighs on the final poems in Walkers. In "Today," Hall turns away, and denies the passersby, "tired of the bells in their feet / Ringing ceaselessly." Like Emily Dickinson, she recoils from the trite ("Prayer Against Triteness"), and longs to sing "what was never heard."At last she seems to welcome, almost to beckon, death, "the green and useful grave." "I will feel nothing," she says, and coolly celebrates the apocalypse, that "incomparable incident." Although Walkers ends with a reprisal of the theme of transcendental longing, the inevitability of death has been accepted.

Cry of Time is a book of lamentations, and a book of farewells. A new severity and intensity surges through these last poems, propelled by a more muscular diction: the light is "baffled," the dark like "twisted iron," the night "chronic." The outer world has grown strange, an unreal place of time and death, where the sunlight is sword-like, steely, cold and rigid, the moonlight "like ice... hard and sheer." Through her window, Hall sees twisted steel and brittle glass, the hills folded like pieces of paper. But her interior world, her refuge, is ever-curved and curving: the contour of her hand and cheek, the curve of breath, the curving arc of thought, the "quiet curve of sorrow." A darkly mellifluous lyricism celebrates this inner life. In Cry of Time, Hall once again finds in silence a creative source; her song is a silence that is heard," her "cry of time" the cry of human mortality.

Shadowing Hall's hard-won success is a deepening dissatisfaction with poetry and a keen awareness of its inadequacies. Weary of her craft, she casts a critical eye back over her poems, perhaps noticing the occasional preciousness in Curtains and the portentousness in Walkers. In numerous poems, the reader, Hall's "audience," addresses the poet, usually to criticize. While she at least once invokes her muse, Hall's final poems turn more often against poetry. "Think of me listening myself to death," from "Pleasantry," recalls Adrienne Rich's, "what kind of beast would turn its life into words?"8 Shedding her past, Hall places a moratorium on sorrow, and even on the sea, her previous emblem of irrepressible life, going metaphorically "inland" to "soundlessness." She would even, in "To All Quiet Persons," shed wisdom in favor of experience, however mortal: "come out into the sunlight, come."

Blindness and physical decline are recurring themes in Cry of Time. "For a Broken Needle" reads as a dual elegy for the needle and the poet of the needlework poems:

FOR A BROKEN NEEDLE
Even fine steel thinly made
To hold a raging thread,
Comes to lie with purple shade
in a dreaded bed.

All its chiseled length, its nice
Grip, its moving gleam
That was once like chips of ice
In a heated seam,

Are no more. It is fit
We should chant a strain
Of lament, then tumble it
Out into the rain.

In this poem, as well as others ("Weeper in the Dark" " The Dubious Self," and "Rain"), Hall draws near to death, finding there release and comfort, losing herself, dissolving, merging, or vanishing. The life-giving ocean now crashes over her, and she is insensible as a stone. Even the erotic and sensual are drawn into the vortex of death. Hall walks in these poems "Close to the blinding edge / Of night." A new elegiac tone floods the writing, a tone of resignation and acceptance, finding that "cold is easier than pain."

Cry of Time is punctuated by poems describing an indivisible solidarity between women, a sisterhood of which Hazel Hall felt a part. This theme, introduced in Curtains, and visited in Walkers, we find brilliantly elaborated here, in poems such as "Inheritance", "Woman Death," and "Any Woman. Here women's solitude and grief is described collectively, In these poems, more than in any of her others, Hall touches-indeed embraces-others, experiencing the discharge of empathy she so longed for.

Dubious of poetry, her health failing, Hall affirmed at the end the endurance of song. Sewing and singing merge a last time in "Maker of Songs," where the speaker instructs herself to

Take strands of speech, faded and broken;
Tear them to pieces, word from word,
Then take the ravelled shreds and dye them
With meanings that were never heard.

... Weaver,
Weave well and not with words alone;
Weave through the pattern every fragment
Of glittered breath that you have known.

Song will survive, if only as dirge, "a riot / Of silences... a quiet / That yet may snare the flesh." The interior landscape of Cry of Time is crisscrossed by a bird, image of freedom, its thin wing curving, "crushing space / With the arrow of its breast."

The poet in extremis, a poem such as "They Say Her Heart Is Broken," releases brilliant spasms of modernist invention, nervously indexing a shattered reality, resembling uncannily the poems of Sylvia Plath. In "Estranged" ("I have broken with myself"), the voice seems disembodied. In "The Unuttered," Hall achieves a dense distillation of loss, a mingling of grief and physical pain, making, paradoxically, a "good love." And in "The Relinquisher" she rids even her blood of the sound of the sea. As if bequeathing her life's accumulated possessions to the reader, she reaches the end of her list, her hands, in Curtains so empowering, now "the exquisite frail mirrors / Of all the mind misunderstands."

In these poems, many of which were written in the final weeks of her life, Hazel Hall makes her peace with her art, with her world, even, in "Interim, with sorrow itself:

Let us have nothing more to say of sorrow.
Our world's concern is but a twisted leaf
Blown down the shadowed verities of grief,
Falling into the silence whence it came.

She come to quietus, approaching the edge, where time is "purple." She leaves the reader in an empty room, filled with quietly reverberating interrogations.

What my fingers had of shape
Is a curve of blowing light,
Moving in unhurried flight,
With the rain, to its escape.

Yet what have I given rain,
Who have felt the edge of rain
Fray my fingers, who have striven
To give much, what have I given
But a little moving pain?

("Rain")

The critical response to Hazel Hall's poems appears to have been immediate and enthusiastic. William Stanley Braithwaite rhapsodized in the Boston Transcript, "Out Of the West comes a woman poet to dispute the sovereignty of Sara Teasdale."9 The more demure Poetry magazine said of Curtains, "The usual first book of verse is conglomerate.... But this is the crystallization of a personality "10 And the reviewer of Cry of Time for the New York World wrote:

This poetry is so tenuously delicate that only its cumulative power could have made the world note it. There are things in it as subtle and sudden as Emily Dickinson, and things as accurate, sharp and metallic as E.E. Cummings; but Hazel Hall was so far from being derivative that her poems are stamped with an almost fiercely individual impress.11

The publication of each of Hazel Hall's books caused an excited stir in the nation's literary community. Yet by the mid 1930s she had been largely forgotten, and her poems had vanished from the anthologies. We can only speculate why her star, having risen so quickly, should have suddenly dimmed. It is true that Hall lacked the supporting circle of friends and literary connections that often propel a career. it must be admitted that her second book, Walkers, is less even in quality than Curtains or Cry of Time. And it is certainly possible that Hall was mistakenly identified in the minds of many with the domestic, and forgettable, "women poets" who wrote sentimental verse on subjects such as sewing. Or did some at the time find it difficult to approach Hall's ferociously grieving and inconsolable spirit, her "raging thread" and "chronic night," the very qualities that make her poems so alive and compelling today?

After a long eclipse, Hazel Hall's poems have been rediscovered, and are once again being read and celebrated. The volume in hand gathers for the first time all her poetry published in book form. It restores to Walkers two poems, "Ahead of Him" and "A Whistler in the Night," listed in the contents, but unaccountably absent from some copies of the book. Not included here are the numerous unpublished works; the poems published pseudonymously (some twenty poems under one pseudonym alone), mostly juvenilia in which the poet was still finding her identity and voice; and her attempts at short prose, of which three are known to have been published." The reader will find here Curtains, Walkers, and Cry of Time in their entirety, making possible a complete appreciation of Hazel Hall's achievement, and a reassessment of her place among American poets. Ahead of their time, perhaps these poems have had to await a new generation of readers, the unborn walkers for whom she sang.

John Witte
Eugene, Oregon
August 1999

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