The Ship Pounding

Hall, Donald

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Oct-04-2005
  • Last revised: Jan-09-2007


Poet Donald Hall writes of his vigil over wife Jane (poet Jane Kenyon), gravely ill with leukemia. To him, the hospital where he spends his days with her is a ship whose huge pounding engines keep the propellers turning so that the voyage to harbor can safely be made. The ship passengers "wore masks or cannulae . . . but I believed that the ship / travelled to a harbor / of breakfast, work, and love."

Hall writes about what he wrote at the time: " ’. . . bone marrow restored . . . I will take my wife . . . home to our dog and day.’ " After weeks of treatment, wife Jane is discharged, months pass, and now, at home, Hall re-reads his own words as he listens anxiously "to hear Jane call for help," and prepares to "make the agitated / drive to Emergency again," knowing that there is no safe harbor and that the ship is going nowhere, a " . . . huge / vessel that heaves water . . . / without leaving / port, . . . / without arrival or destination . . . . "


In 34 lines Hall encapsulates months centered around his wife’s mortal illness (she died at age 48, fifteen months after diagnosis). The metaphor of the hospital as ship serves well to convey, first, the sense of bustling, purposeful medical activity, giving the voyagers hope and a sense of direction, and then later, failure in spite of tremendous effort.

The sense of time elapsed, of his wife’s deteriorating health, and of the expectation of worse, is superbly evoked by Hall’s device of quoting his own words, written during a time more hopeful than the present, played back while simultaneously re-capitulating what has transpired during the interim and what he worriedly anticipates. This is a poem written with objectivity. There is no blame, no sentimentality, but a great deal of perceptive attention. Note: this poem appeared with Jane Kenyon’s poem, The Sick Wife, (see this database), in the same New Yorker issue.

Primary Source

The New Yorker


Condé Nast

Place Published

New York