The Darkness and the Light: Poems

The Darkness and the Light: Poems

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by Anthony Hecht

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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
by now,
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.

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Editorial Reviews

Hecht is the sort of brilliant man with whom one might enjoy lunch. Unfortunately, and here's the rub, you might end up reading his poetry. With entertaining narratives, dark monologues, fresh translations of ancient monologues and the occasional art-inspired poem, Hecht takes us through the vengeful and self-righteous world of comfortable, contemporary bourgeois academics. The poet appears always pressed deep into his overstuffed armchair by the weight of great learning and decadent leisure. Although he gets a few good digs in against academic excess with "Rara Avis in Terris," he falls among his victims in "Sacrifice." This three-part poem is built around a reductive, psychology-heavy association between the two Old Testament figures Abraham and Isaac, and an ordinary family who risk their son in a confrontation with a German soldier during World War II. "It wasn't charity. Perhaps mere prudence,/Saving a valuable round of ammunition/For some more urgent crisis. Whatever it was,/The soldier reslung his rifle on his shoulder." The sneering phrase "whatever it was" is annoyingly typical of these lines—whatever the mysteries of the ancient Hebrew tale of sacrifice, only a comfortable intellectual could toss off everything to chance. These poems seldom rise to the wry wit of W.H. Auden or produce the peculiar discomfort with beauty that one gets from reading Robert Frost, to name two poets he echoes. Nevertheless, if self-conscious literary intellectual hopelessness is your bag, Hecht may become one of your favorites.
—Stephen Whited

(Excerpted Review)
Library Journal
Hecht's (Flight Among the Tombs, The Hard Hours) refreshing and liberating verse possesses a quality that transcends both time and space. In his eighth book of poetry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet pulls the reader into an ocean that "rams itself in pitched assault/ And spastic rage to which there is no halt;/ Foam-white brigades collapse; but the huge host/ Has infinite reserves." It is his striking use of "r" and "o" sounds, creating a cadence of rising and falling within the meter of the line ("against the enormous rocks of a rough coast") that demonstrates Hecht's linguistic control. In the past, Hecht has revealed the scope of his craft in his quality translations of Horace, Baudelaire, and Goethe; here, he pays homage to his predecessors by bringing to light the strong connection between contemporary and biblical themes in such poems as "Sacrifice" and "The Road to Damascus." An exceptional book of poetry, Hecht's latest endeavor is highly recommended for all poetry collections. Tim Gavin, Episcopal Acad., Merion, PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fiercely melancholic sequence of lyrics, odes, monologues, and translations, many of them written with the Biblical tales in mind. The severe rhythms and wild rhymes ("guano" is made to chime with "soprano") make wonderfully baroque patterns—Bach partitas set stylishly to words. But music is only part of the festivities offered in Hecht's work. His poems are also painterly, full of still lives, landscapes, and jewel-box miniatures. Lot's wife remembers the "exquisite satisfactions" of her childhood in this way: "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." Hecht often figures the poet as a witness, and the infinite pleasures of observation are always mixed with more difficult moral concerns like passivity, historical atrocity, and individual despair. In "A Witness," a "briny, tough, and thorned sea holly" watches as "The ocean rams itself in pitched assault / And spastic rage to which there is no halt . . . / At scenes of sacrifice, unrelieved pain, / figured in froth, aquamarine and black." That pain should go unrelieved is Hecht's way of acknowledging poetry's limits and history's wounds; the tough holly is his protest against both. Another tactic for combating forgetfulness is to resurrect a voice. Hecht's most well known poem of this type is "The Maid of Dover" (after Arnold), and in the new collection he approaches those heights with the savage "Judith": "It was easy. Holofernes was pretty tight; / I had only to show some cleavage and he was done for." No contemporary poet is so lapidary as Hecht. That he can put such beauty at theservice of a stringent ethic is his continual gift.
From the Publisher
"Some years–no, decades!–ago, Anthony Hecht was pleased to call the poems in The Hard Hours, his second book, "a few snapshots from along the Via Negativa." Loyal to that figuration the poet remains, though how much more intense the chiaroscuro here, how much deeper the imprint: these are the poems of Horatio after so much of Denmark’s personnel has been cleared away, meditating loss and survival, rich with a survivor’s torn wisdom. For all the glee of the poesis, Hecht’s lines are severe even in their civility, their music wild even in its mastery. Rendered in his eighth book is the judgment of an unrelenting and an unreconciled art."

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Lot's Wife

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.

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