The poetry of Anthony Hecht has been praised by Harold Bloom and Ted Hughes, among others, for its sure control of difficult material and its unique music and visual precision. This new volume is the fruit of a mellowing maturity that carries with it a smoky bitterness, a flavor of ancient and experienced wisdom, as in this stanza from “Sarabande on Attaining… See more details below
The poetry of Anthony Hecht has been praised by Harold Bloom and Ted Hughes, among others, for its sure control of difficult material and its unique music and visual precision. This new volume is the fruit of a mellowing maturity that carries with it a smoky bitterness, a flavor of ancient and experienced wisdom, as in this stanza from “Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-seven”:
A turn, a glide, a quarter-turn and bow,
The stately dance advances; these are airs
Bone-deep and numbing as I should know
Diminishing the cast, like musical chairs.
Hecht’s verse—by turns lyric and narrative, formal and free—is grounded in the compassion that comes from a deep understanding of every kind of human depredation, yet is tempered by flashes of wry comedy, and still more by innocent pleasure in the gifts of the natural world. Followers of his poetry will recognize an evolution of style in many of these poems—a quiet and understated voice, passing through darkness toward realms of delight.
From the Hardcover edition.
How simple the pleasures of those childhood days,
Simple but filled with exquisite satisfactions.
The iridescent labyrinth of the spider,
Its tethered tensor nest of polygons
Puffed by the breeze to a little bellying sail--
Merely observing this gave infinite pleasure.
The sound of rain. The gentle graphite veil
Of rain that makes of the world a steel engraving,
Full of soft fadings and faint distances.
The self-congratulations of a fly,
Rubbing its hands. The brown bicameral brain
Of a walnut. The smell of wax. The feel
Of sugar to the tongue: a delicious sand.
One understands immediately how Proust
Might cherish all such postage-stamp details.
Who can resist the charms of retrospection?
Death the Whore
Some thin gray smoke twists up against a sky
Of German silver in the sullen dusk
From a small chimney among leafless trees.
The paths are empty, the weeds bent and dead;
Winter has taken hold. And what, my dear,
Does this remind you of? You are surprised
By the familiar manner, the easy, sure
Intimacy of my address. You wonder
Whose curious voice is this? Why should that scene
Seem distantly familiar? Did something happen
Back in my youth on a deserted path
Late on some unremembered afternoon?
And now you'll feel at times a fretful nagging
At the back of your mind as of something almost grasped
But tauntingly and cunningly evasive.
It may go on for months, perhaps for years.
Think of the memory game that children played
So long ago. A grownup brought a tray
Laden with objects hidden by a shawl
Or coverlet with fine brocaded flowers
Beneath which, like the roofs of a small city,
Some secret things lay cloaked. Then at a signal
The cloth was whisked away for thirty seconds.
You were allowed to do nothing but look,
And then the cover was replaced. Remember?
The tray contained bright densely crowded objects,
Sometimes exotic--a small cloisonne egg,
A candle-snuffer with an ivory handle--
But simple things as well. It never occurred
To any of the children there to count them;
You had been told simply to memorize
The contents of the tray. Each child was given
Paper and pencil to list what he recalled
And no one ever finally got them all;
Something always escaped. Perhaps a needle,
A gum eraser or a plastic ruler.
And so it is that now, as you're about
To eat or light a cigarette, something
Passes too swiftly before you can take aim,
Passes in furtive silence, in disguise,
Glimpsed only hazily in retrospect--
Like a clock's strokes recounted once they're done,
Never with confidence.
And now you're angry
At what you think of as my long digression
When in fact it's the eclipses of your mind,
Those sink-holes, culverts, cisterns long avoided
As dangerous, where the actual answer lies.
As for my indirection, I'll just say
I have more time than I know what to do with.
Let me give you a hint. The voice you hear
Is not the voice of someone you remember--
Or rather, it's that voice now greatly altered
By certain events of which you've partly heard,
Partly imagined, altogether feared.
Does that help? No, I didn't think it would.
Perhaps we can return another time
(A time when you're conveniently abstracted)
To the topic of my voice and of that smoke.
Much time elapses. (I could count the days;
You, for your part, have no idea how many.)
Today a color ad for undergarments,
Some glossy pages of Victoria's Secret,
Modeled by a young blonde catches your eye.
Nothing so vivid as a memory
Results. Perhaps a vague erotic sense,
A fleeting impulse down between your legs,
Stirs like a sleeping dog. Your mind begins
Its little, paltry Leporello's list
Of former girlfriends who pass in review
As images, stripped even of their names.
And then you linger upon one. It's me.
Don't be surprised. All that was long ago.
Your indolent thought goes over my young breasts,
Remembering, fondling, exciting you.
How very long ago that was. It lasted
Almost two years. Two mainly happy years.
In all that time, what did you learn of me?
My name, my body, how best to go about
Mutual arousal, my taste in food and drink
And what would later be called "substances."
(These days among my friends I might be called
"A woman of substance" if I were still around.)
You also learned, from a casual admission,
That I had twice attempted suicide.
Tact on both sides had left this unexplored.
We both seemed to like sex for the same reason.
It was, as they used to say, a "little death,"
A tiny interval devoid of thought
When even sensation is so localized
Only one part of the body seems alive.
And when you left I began the downhill slope.
First one-night stands; then quickly I turned pro
In order to get all the drugs I wanted.
My looks went fast. I didn't really care.
The thing that I'd been after from the first,
With you, with sex, with drugs, was oblivion.
So it was easy. A simple overdose
Knocked back with half a bottle of good Scotch.
In later years the rumors found you out
Through mutual friends. And somehow you remembered
That I had been disowned by my family.
My parents would have nothing to do with me
After they found I'd been a prostitute,
To say nothing of my trial suicides.
So, as you guessed, when I at last succeeded,
They acted as if I never had been born.
("Let the day perish ...," as the scripture says.)
There was no funeral, no cemetery,
Nowhere for you to come in pilgrimage--
Although from time to time you thought of me.
Oh yes, my dear, you thought of me; I know.
But less and less, of course, as time went on.
And then you learned by a chance word of mouth
That I had been cremated, thereby finding
More of oblivion than I'd even hoped for.
And now when I occur to you, the voice
You hear is not the voice of what I was
When young and sexy and perhaps in love,
But the weary voice shaped in your later mind
By a small sediment of fact and rumor,
A faceless voice, a voice without a body.
As for the winter scene of which I spoke--
The smoke, my dear, the smoke. I am the smoke.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Anthony Hecht is the author of seven books of poetry, among them The Hard Hours, which received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1968, and, more recently, Flight Among the Tombs. In 1984 he received the Eugenio Montale Award for lifetime achievement in poetry, and in 2000 the Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. He has written a critical study of the poetry of W. H. Auden, and On the Laws of the Poetic Art (Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts). He taught for some years at Bard College, the University of Rochester and Georgetown University, and now lives in Washington, D.C.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Hecht's verse is always a pleasure to read. You see his intelligence, formal skill, and love of language in his poems. 'Nocturne' is Hecht's succesful villanelle, which is one of my favorite formal types of poems, and when it is well done, and it is well done here, it can be one of the most successful forms of poetry. bravo mr. hecht. 'Sacrifice' also sticks out in the book. it is a poem in three parts, juxtaposing the story of abraham and isaac with an incident in 1945, which is just chilling. hecht has several successful translations. I was dissapointed in the lack of war poems, which few do better than hecht, and the overabundance of religous poems. the dual picture on the cover lead me to believe that the subject of this collection would be both wwii and religion. i would hope next time knopf would do better in designing the cover.