For thirty-five years Anthony Hecht has been writing and publishing poems of impeccable grace without sacrificing an iota of honest observation. Indeed with the years it has become quite clear that the real purpose of the high polish of his phrasing, meter, and verbal wit is to make bearable the harsh grain of human experience to his poet’s touch. Quite possibly his formalism has enabled him to look more directly into the eye of the modern storm than many of his peers who have relied on the expressive intensity of free verse to rise to what they saw as the demands of modern life. If Robert Lowell and John Berryman departed from formalism and embraced free verse to do justice to the storms raging within them, Anthony Hecht has stiffened his resolve, sharpened his wit, and perfected his meters to ride out the storm all around us. 1980), Hecht intersperses longer narrative poems with translations, meditations, and elegies. In the former work two narratives, “The Short End” and “The Venetian Vespers,” dominate the collection. This time Hecht’s shorter pieces are as impressive as the longer ones, and the reader has difficulty finding a platform from which to view the splendid terrain with a clear sense of its range and meaning. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this is a collection with a distinct point of view. Its title is taken from a monologue very near the end of the collection, in which a patient dying of leukemia assures his silent visitor, a Mr. Curtis (pun for courtesy?), that all is well despite the fact that chemotherapy has caused the speaker to lose her hair and made it difficult for her to “read through any of your books these days.” Instead she has been studying the trees outside her window:
One by one,
They stand there like magnificent enlargements
Of the vascular system of the human brain.
I see them there like huge discamate minds,
Lost in their meditative silences.
The trunks, branches and twigs compose the vessels
That teed and nourish vast immortal Ihoughts.
She assigns various trees the brains of great minds: “Beethoven … and Kepler.” It all brings to mind a “birthday toy” called “The Transparent Man” that she and a childhood friend loved to play with: “It was made of plastic, with different colored organs,/ And the circulatory system all mapped out/In rivers of red and blue.”
Just as the dying patient remains perplexed by “the tousled snarl of intersecting limbs” beckoning from the woods beyond the trees closest to her window, Hecht lets us know his problem in hers:
If there is order in all that anarchy
Of granite mezzotint, that wildemess,
It takes a better eye than mine to see it.
II set me on to wondering how to deal
With such a thickness of particulars
In other words, Anthony Hecht’s poetic vision in this collection is dedicated to the discovery of those rivers of being that rush through man and nature. Reality must yield to the poet’s power and become, even if only fleetingly, “transparent.”
In the first section of this volume Hecht looks through several sheets of glass. First comes childhood: a haunting image of children up at winter’s dawn, their faces glued to the window of a school bus in a network of images that recall Ezra Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro” (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough”):
And are themselves the ghosts, file cabinet gray,
Of some departed us,
Signing our lives away...
(The entire section is 1478 words.)