A Poet's Attic
January is a month of new beginnings, but I experienced one last summer when my son cleaned out our ancient basement while I purged the garage loft that serves as an attic in our home. What was removed from those household extremities was not a pretty sight, but it looked a lot better out by the curb and the new "free" space is liberating.
Then, last October, while on a photo shoot at the home of writer Donald Hall (click here for the story and photos), I had a chance to experience an attic and a barn space that, though just as cluttered and time-stained as mine, made my storage areas look like outtakes from an episode of "Hoarders."
The attic in Donald Hall's 200-year-old farmhouse was so dense that it took some care to weave through the aisles and there were some places you couldn't quite reach for the abundance of bric-a-brac, old chairs, boxes and loosely assorted mementos. Light pouring through the one window created a chiaroscuro effect on old felt hats and bundled frames with splashes of light on tarnished silver and once-polished wood. Where my attic had seemed dirty and disheveled, Hall's seemed like a museum display of artifacts from a rich subconscious mind.
His historic barn exaggerated this effect. The floors were encrusted with the strata of dust and manure typical of an old working farm and the contents were a mixture of preserved antiquity and modern yard tools and things that just don't fit anywhere else. But the photographer noted that just about anywhere he pointed his camera was worth shooting. A dark antique sleigh stood in a stall next to a bright orange "Frost Heaves" sign. Upstairs a hand-carved yoke leaned against the posts of a massive old wooden bedstead. A big box of metal farm implements, if turned on its side, would have looked at home in a museum of modern art. In one corner a dusty wooden rocking chair with a cracked leather seat was perfectly framed by an inviting spotlight of sun from a nearby window.
I began to wonder if Hall himself might have arranged things for effect, back when he was more spry, or if over the years the subtle adjustments of a thousand visitors and photographers had gradually ev0lved the random placement of things into such artistry.
A better, though more humbling, explanation is that, in a home where a great poet lives, the organizing principle of creativity and vision is a force of nature. Like wind on sand or water through a canyon it shapes the mundane into patterns of beauty. Or maybe that influence just changes the way we see things.
Either way it's good news that so many great artists and writers like Donald Hall have chosen to make their homes here in New Hampshire.