In 2005 Mrs. Chatterbox and I decided to explore urban living; we bought a hundred year old house on Northwest 22nd Place in downtown Portland. The neighborhood, dotted with late Victorian houses, had a shabby chic quality. Our street was slightly run down but our realtor convinced us to overlook the decay. The area was adjacent to the trendy shops and restaurants of Northwest 23rd only a block away. Our street had seen its ups and downs over the years but our realtor told us it was about to experience gentrification. By gentrification he must have been referring to all the money we would need to invest to keep our house from falling down.
Not long after moving there I decided to explore our new neighborhood; I made a closer inspection than I had before deciding on a home purchase there. I walked a hundred yards until 22nd place ended at Burnside, a crowded thoroughfare lined with tattoo parlors, flop houses and cheap restaurants, a far cry from the trendy establishments only a few blocks away. I quickly began to question the local color Mrs. C. and I had decided to immerse ourselves in.
As I retraced my steps home I paused in front of a house half a dozen doors from ours. The structure was rundown, the elaborate trim and molding in need of attention. Weeds sprouted from the rain gutters on the roof. But I was intrigued by the plaque near the sagging porch. Along with a picture of a winsome woman it read: Hazel Hall House.
I was determined to find out who Hazel Hall was and asked around. No one was aware of her, not college kids renting cheap rooms or folks old enough to have waved when Lewis and Clark when passed through. I began to think of Hazel Hall as a mysterious sphinx, and I was determined to know more about the person behind the enigmatic face.
I decided to Google her and discovered that Hazel Hall was an Oregon poet who died in 1924. Little was written about her but I managed to pick up a few facts. Hall was born in 1886. As a young girl she moved to Portland from Minnesota, but at the age of twelve she contracted scarlet fever and used a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
According to Wikipedia, Hall was an exuberant, unusually sensitive, and imaginative child. Like Emily Dickinson, who had died several years earlier, she would live out her life in an upper room of her family’s home. To help support her mother and two sisters, Hall took in sewing and gainfully occupied herself embroidering the sumptuous fabrics of bridal gowns, baby dresses, altar cloths, lingerie, and Bishop’s cuffs that would figure so lushly in her poems. Hall took up writing poetry only when her eyesight began to fail. What must it have been like, I wondered, to sew dresses for brides from wealthy families when she herself would never marry and have a family of her own?
Armed with this information, I walked back to Hazel Hall House and examined it more closely. An attempt had been made to create a memorial to her in an empty lot beside the house, an unkempt spot where a house had probably burned down. On a path now used as a shortcut to a nearby Goodwill Center, three granite slabs had been placed with Hall’s poems. The words on two were covered with moss and graffiti, but the third was legible.
After reading the poem I turned around and glanced at Northwest 22nd Place, trying to see it through the eyes of a young woman, confined to a wheelchair and trapped in that upstairs bedroom, imagining a world far away from this shadowy street. Her gifts with needlework and words must have been meager compensation for her limited mobility, isolation and loneliness. Still, she managed to transform her grief into poems of remarkable originality and durability.
Hazel Hall was in her twenties when she began writing poetry. She died in her thirties. Shortly before her death she published a collection of poems called Walkers. (Interesting since she couldn’t walk.) She didn’t live long enough to hear critics call her: The Fresh Voice of Female Poetry in America. Her work drifted into obscurity, her stanzas obliterated like the words on the slabs beside her crumbling house. But words can withstand the vicissitudes of fortune when they are stitched to truth and honesty.
Sphinxes can be dug out of the sand. Houses can be restored and granite slabs cleaned, but poems are only immortal while they live in memory. Hazel Hall deserves to be remembered.