Millions of Strange Shadows
The ldquo;strange shadows” of which Anthony Hecht’s title speaks are those cast by the twentieth century, and his poems are all, in one way or other, soundings of this worst of times when poets, the most able of all to take soundings of their present, past, and future, must, like Allen Tate or Ted Hughes, try to understand the terrors of the night and the perplexities of daily existence. As it has been said, after Dachau and Buchenwald, human life can no longer be seen in the humanistic light shed by the Renaissance poets. Many of Hecht’s poems deal with the supreme tragedy of this century—World War II and the butchery of the Nazi death camps—while others have to do with more personal misfortunes: divorce, the attempted suicide of a brother, growing old.
But it is not only the horrors of this world and time that cast shadows: God does too. Hecht, metaphysician that he is, dares to do what few poets care to do these days: consider God as a presence (if an often impotent one) in the daily affairs of men and consider life after death a basis upon which one can build a life.
In “A Birthday Poem,” Hecht asks the question of Time, “What is your substance whereof are you made,/ That millions of strange shadows on you tend?” Addressing his beloved, the poet tells her that her smile “brims upon the world.” Love, then, a poet-honored curative for what ails the horror-stricken and the world-and-time-weary, is one of Hecht’s agents in his subversive war against the monstrous and sad shadows. It is the woman, smiling upon creation, brimming over with love for her poet, that takes his mind from history, the atom bomb, and all those “Caesars and heretics and Jews/ Gone down in blood. . . .”
Throughout this collection, Hecht takes the readers, as all worthy poets must, down into his hold, into his cache of memories, anecdotes, dreams, and talismans. He writes about the world by writing about his wives, his first knowledge of sex and blood, his thoughts during a Broadway show, and about the sublimities of nature as she is known by a New Yorker: “a light so pure and just” in the midst of our wasted world of iron and concrete. Hecht’s poems frequently offer his readers counsel. He has the manner of one who has been there, of one who knows of whence he speaks. For all who would know what the meaning of a son’s birth is, there is Hecht’s “The Odds,” a poem offering endless speculations about the world the infant enters: its My Lais where a “wild strew of bodies” can temporarily obscure the blessing of a birth in America. Hecht, recalling for the readers complexities of a lonely childhood in the city, can say, “I was there” and allow them into that recalled time when, as he notes, “I moved in a cloudy world of inference/ Where the most solid object was a toy/Rake that my governess had used to beat me”; he used silence, exile, and cunning, in Dedalus’ manner, to escape from life’s sordidness and terrors.
But the poet makes good his escape from boredom and the malice of others by reading, speculating, and, perhaps more importantly, by encountering the everyday world in a Wordsworthian way, finding in the squalor of street and decayed tenements a transcendence that makes life sing and soar, “As if the world had just then been created,/ Not as a garden, but a rather soiled,/Loud, urban intersection, by God’s will.” Mystery is possible in, and often part of, Hecht’s universe where “dark and cabbalistic mysteries” are “Grossly suggestive, keeping their own counsel.” Mystery for Hecht emanates from the source of light and life—God. This is a God who fails to drive away anguish when it desperately needs to be driven from human hearts, a God who, as he notes in his moving “Poem Upon the Lisbon Disaster,” seems to care little for the earthquake victims of impoverished Lisbon, the “feeble humanity” surrounded by fallen timber, bricks, pieces of what was once valued, “Cut down to bleed away their final hours.” Throughout Millions of Strange Shadows, the pressing query, “Why Lisbon? Why Me?” is given voice. “Why Lisbon,” the poet seems to ask, “when all about us are more decadent dens: the Parises and Londons where people drink champagne while Lisbon rots?” Like Voltaire, a spiritual ally, Hecht questions everything in search of an answer that will lessen his own inner gnawings. In “The Cost” he tries out one possibility. “The Cost” has to do with two young Romans larking on a Vespa scooter who are, if only for an instant, cast in brave and illuminating juxtaposition with the ancient column of Roman Emperor Trajan who once waged extended war in order that his empire might experience “seven years of peace.” These youths, caught as if photographed by Hecht’s camera-like imagination, are happy and unperplexed—happily alive. But, in back of them, Trajan’s column throws history’s menacing shadow and the poet realizes that “one unbodied thought/ Could topple them, bring down/ The whole shebang.” The one...
(The entire section is 2064 words.)