January 22, 2021

Mentors: James Baker Hall 1935-2009

jbhSomeone significant died yesterday. At least for writers, poets and artists in Kentucky.

James Baker Hall. Poet. Artist. Writer. Teacher. Mentor. Former Poet Laureate of Kentucky, 2001-2003.

Hall has been an inspiration to generations of Kentucky writers and poets. He’s had a deep influence on my son, Clay.

I know that the passing of mentors can be some of life’s most important crossroads. We ask ourselves what we learned from them and how we can keep them alive in our memories and work.

Hall will live on in his wonderful photographs, vivid prose and emotionally adventurous poetry. Take a few moments and discover a little about him. And perhaps share some thoughts about your own mentors and how they have affected you.

Enjoy two of his poems.

The Maps
by James Baker Hall

All those years he was married,
frequenting the map stores.
The eight quadrangles surrounding the house
in which he lived and worked, he saw them in relief:
he pinned them over his desk like messages, justified.
He spent long hours studying them. He fell in love

with maps. At night he would lie on the couch
with his hands, in the dark, memorizing
the mountains. He would lie
on the floor in his son’s room,
in the moonlight, the maps
between them. His hands
loved the waters, an island
at a time. His voice loved
distances. At some point
he quit, I quit

calling myself he.
I fell in love without maps.
I carried everything I thought I needed
in the back of a truck or in a knapsack,
I spent night after night lost in the darkness,
huddled on a beach somewhere, or asleep
on a stranger’s floor. It took years.
I had to go all the way
to the white undersides of the leaves
before I knew that my own veins were shaking,
in the dogs’ ears, in the wind,

and it could occur to me, more often now,
that I need nothing. That I could, even yet,
quit calling myself anything.

The Mother on the Other Side of the World

a yellow cat from the next field over hungry finds
her way to the feed bowls inside our toolshed atop
the deepfreeze our striped gray lets this happen
then moves low to the ground
into position crouching outside
staring at the only escape
too frightened now
to eat the stray too stares at it
neither can see the other
for the longest time
something dark emerges
almost audibly circles
of their silence their
motionlessness pulse out
into the greater commotions the spins and counterspins
including the entire backyard the neighboring fields
many horses the adjoining areas
each of us moving in God knows
how many different directions at once
these two cats one almost wild
the other almost domesticated
get their version of it
line up perfectly
great longing compacted
their own little seesaw
the whole backyard seesaws
the mother on the other side
of the world
many fears
but only this one silence
the stray’s tail was all I saw
of her when she got out of there
that night beginning the plot of this story
I was to see about that much of her
again the next night in my headlights
at the side of a narrow road
a half mile away
yellow eyes
echoing outward the darkness it was
gonglike and out there in the expanding middle
I was to see more and more of her
in the days to follow
she hangs out in the culvert
I pull off the road and climb down
with a plastic cup of food
emptying it out on a scrap board I took down there
she stays at the other end of the culvert
as though she’d never ever come closer
sweet talk doesn’t run her off
but she prefers quiet it seems
occasionally she’ll have a dead mouse
or chipmunk prominently displayed
a gift for me perhaps or maybe
a reminder of the role
she allows me to play
she never lets me see her
lick herself or sleep

— James Baker Hall, The Mother on the Other Side of the World (Sarabande, 1999)


  1. Dan Allison says

    Thanks you, Michael, for sharing these remarkable poems.

  2. Those poems truly were beautiful. I fancy myself a writer, of sorts, but have never delved into poetry. I can see why your son, who does write poetry, would be moved by this man’s writing. I’m taking it that Clay actually knew this man. Thank you for posting this. I feel enriched by it.


  3. One of my mentors, who is still alive, was a professor at the Brethren seminary where I first studied in Ashland, OH. He is Brethren to the core. He is not just a pacifist, but he also believes that verbal violence is also forbidden to Christians.

    He is quite an academic, able to read English, French, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew. He is the son of a Greek professor–who is now with the Lord. And, yet, he chose to be a pastor for several years before becoming an academician because he believed that a theologian who has never lived the Church can teach the Church.

    Sometimes, as he prepared to teach us, he would be so almost entranced with the Lord that he would begin the class with a hymn rather than just a prayer, and he would stand there with his eyes closed as he sang it. We all knew that when he taught us of the Trinity and the Ecumenical Councils that led to the formulation of that doctrine, he was not just speaking about doctrine, but speaking of someone he knew intimately, the Triune God.

    He called himself a closet Anglican because, though he is Brethren, his studies in early Church history had shown him that the early Anabaptist claims about the Church could not fully stand up to the light of history. He was Anabaptist, don’t let me imply otherwise. And, yet, his studies had changed his appreciation for the Early Church. He was broad minded not because he had no opinions but because history had taught him how we need to hold our personal opinions with an openness to being corrected by the Spirit of God.

    I suspect that you can already tell how he influenced me by reading what I wrote about him.

  4. Thank you for the links to the writings of this man. I perused his poetry with great delight. His is a very astute, imaginative, and wonderfully masculine poetic that reflects both our fallenness and our redemption. I am enriched.

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