Editorial note about this letter: The poem Don is discussing in this letter is the elegy, “A Dream of Herman.” In it, McNair pays tribute to his father-in-law, Herman Reed, a band leader, whose life seemed to him “unsung” in his letter of November 24, 1980. Here is the draft Hall responded to on December 9.
A Dream of Herman
I was driving the old Dodge wagon
again, with Coke cans rolling
to the front at stop signs,
and you rubbing the dash
every so often to thank the car
for not needing the spare tire
we hadn’t fixed. We were on a trip
that felt like going to your father’s camp, only
we never got there and didn’t care.
It was a beautiful day, just enough wind
coming into the back to make the kids
squint with pure pleasure
as it riffled their hair, and your mother
patted them, saying what a nice ride it was
in the odd, small voice
she used only for your father.
It was then in the rearview mirror I saw him,
wearing the brown cardigan he always wore
and putting on the shining bell
of his saxophone as if just back
from an intermission. You were smiling,
and suddenly I saw the reason
we were traveling together
and did not want to stop
was Herman, who just sat there
in the cargo space, breathing the scale
until the whole family sat back
in their seats, and then he lifted his sax
and opened one more song
as wide and lovely as the floating trees.