Flight Among the Tombs

FLIGHT AMONG THE TOMBS, is not, despite its topic, depressing. Rather, its humor and lack of sentimentality are consoling and uplifting. Anthony Hecht, always a witty poet, writes of a Death who assumes various personas and who can tell a good joke. In the first section of the book, “The Presumptions of Death,” Death appears in twenty-two different manifestations, including “Death the Painter,” “Death the Mexican Revolutionary,” and “Death the Scholar.” Each of the epigrammatic poems of the first section is accompanied by a beautiful woodcut print by Leonard Baskin. The book’s poems are nearly all in masterful rhymed verse, which is a rarity.

For example, this couplet from “Death the Scholar” indicates the fluency of Hecht’s versification: “Your Solons, Stagirites, your philosophes/ To me are countrified, unpolished oafs.” Bragging and assuming multiple guises, Death in this book appears vigorous, even exuberant. In “Peekaboo,” Death chants a children’s rhyme: “Risking more than they know of life and limb/ In playing Peekaboo—/ Whose happiest chances couldn’t be called “slim”—/ I’ve tagged each: ICU.” Even those who reach death, it seems, will not escape puns. Even the two eulogies in the book’s second section—one for James Merrill and one for Joseph Brodsky—reach equanimity and triumph, respectively. Merrill, for example, has joined the party at the end of his epic poem THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER (1982).

Along with ON THE LAWS OF THE POETIC ART, a series of lectures published in 1995, FLIGHT AMONG THE TOMBS should introduce a new group of readers to the admirable scholarship, conservative poetic aesthetic, and sardonic wit of Anthony Hecht, a great poet.