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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Number 278: Donald Hall "Goosefeathers"


When I was twelve I sat by myself in the steamliner
with a shoebox of sandwiches and deviled eggs
my mother made, and ate everything right away
as the train headed north by the Sound where trestles

of derelict trolley lines roosted nations of seagulls.

From South Station I took a taxi across Boston

to a shabby, black locomotive with coal car

that pulled two rickety coaches. It puffed past

long lines of empty commuter trains, past

suburbs thick with houses, past the milltowns

of Lawrence and Lowell, until the track curved

into New Hampshire's pastures of Holstein cattle.

My grandfather waited in his overalls at the depot

with horse and buggy to carry me to the farmhouse,

to fricasseed chicken, corn on the cob, and potatoes.

At nine o'clock, after shutting up the chickens

from skunk and fox, we sat by the cabinet radio

for Gabriel Heatter booming news of the war.
I slept through the night on my goosefeather bed.

-- Donald Hall

Hap Notes: Donald Hall grew up in Hamden, Connecticut but spent his summers at Eagle Pond Farm, his grandfather's farm in New Hampshire. This poem is about one of those trips to the farm, a slice of life from days gone past. Hall currently lives in this house which was originally bought by his great-grandfather.

Hall reminisces but read carefully how you can see, smell, hear and taste this experience in this short poem.

Hall's grandfather often recited poetry to the young poet as they were milking the cows or doing farm chores. (My grandpa did a similar thing while he sharpened lawnmower blades or fixed an ailing wringer washing machine in his repair shop– it was a generation who memorized poetry from their school years.) Hall often mentions how his grandpa had memorized the poems for a Lyceum, which means, in America anyway, a performance for the school usually done in the gymnasium or on the stage (if a school had one.)
I remember having Lyceums at school when I was a kid, don't know if they call them that now.

Gabriel Heatter was a radio commentator and was known for his opening broadcast phrase "Good evening, everyone---there is good news tonight." Heatter's positive opening comforted many a radio listener during the dark days of WWII. (Heatter was a sensitive man who was purposely positive in order to keep up the nation's morale.)

It's amusing that the poet comments how he "ate everything right away" in the shoebox lunch his mom prepared for him. Train travel required such a lunch as there were few places to buy food at the various train depots at the time Hall is writing about. Even if there was food available on the train or at the depots it would have been pretty spendy. Most people brought their own lunch for a journey like this one. (The excitement of travel often made the lunches disappear before they were actually needed. I remember eating my bagged lunch on the school bus on days I was particularly nervous or excited. Which is pretty silly but there you have it.)

Now, why do you think the poet calls this "Goosefeathers." Doesn't it speak of soft, old-fashioned, homey comfort? And also, the light, ephemeral joys of childhood? Doesn't this memory float down to us like downy feathers?

Here is Hall talking about his life (and memories of the farm):

Here is where we have talked about Hall before:

The masthead picture of a farm-type featherbed (like the one Hall speaks of) is available for sale as a print

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