Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1478
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
On femed and parshed windows of a bus.
The dying woman’s trees in “The Transparent Man” have yielded to the intricate leaflike patterns (“ferned and parshed”) of the frost to which schoolchildren are pressing their faces. Transparencies of youth and age reveal the same challenge: “a thickness of particulars.” Hecht continues in this opening section with awe and bemused awareness to look through the meaning of the sea’s surface (“Water is touched with a light case of hives/ Or wandering gooseflesh”); the vanity of longevity in a translation from Oedipus at Colonos; the universality of the painter’s subject (“I am enamored of the pale chalk dust/ Of the moth’s wing, and the dark moldering gold/ Of rust”); and in a strange little story of a perpetually exploited man, the timeless and comic spectacle of the cuckold. To look through things does not necessarily mean to understand them.
“See Naples and Die” is the ironic title of the long narrative poem that constitutes the entirety of the second section of the collection. The poem records the breakup of a marriage, but its real subject is the transparence of happiness and despair and the eerie way the former can yield to the latter; happiness is less a vanity than it is an illusion. The subtlety of this distinction is realized with brilliant allusions to the art, history, and aura of Naples and its bay. These observations reach their climax in a tour of the Elysian Fields, which turn out to be “a vacant wilderness of weeds . .
acres of desolation.” But most stunning of all is the way this long meditation comes to closure. Hecht uses his classical learning to enlarge feelings of emptiness and despair until they spill over into vision. The poem’s speaker, the husband who has drifted away from his wife, imagines the Elder Pliny standing at the same spot and carefully observing the terrifying eruption of Vesuvius:
Of all those strange sights the most ominous
Was perhaps the sudden vision of the sea
Sucked out and drained away by the earthquake
That was part of the eruption, leaving a sea-bed
Of naked horrors lighted now and then
By jets of fire and sheet-lightning flares,
Only to be folded back into the dark.
One could make out in such brief intervals .
Giant sea-worms bright with glittering slime,
Crabs limping in their rheumatoid pavane.
After luxuriating throughout most of the poem in images of Naple’s beauty—very much in the spirit of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Italian rhapsodies—Hecht ends with a clear allusion to T. S. Eliot’s refrain in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
The melancholy speaker of “See Naples and Die” is followed in the third section of the volume by the witty musical tones of “A Love For Four Voices.” Each voice is one of four musical instruments. Together, in “Hommage to Franz Joseph Haydn,” they orchestrate a masque of love, an impudent and humorous entertainment, introduced by the “First Violin” (Hermia), who announces “Here we have fallen trans posingly in love.” She is encouraged by the “Second Violin” (Lysander), who feels “the fickle fingering” and must “confess/It’s already getting late. “Second Violin” (Helena), astonished by the power of love, answers in counterpoint with brazenly contemporary diction and rhythms:
In an inventory of post-Freudian sex
Called “Civilization and its Discotheques.”
In a lingua franca phrase
Of body language at last you’ve understood
What gauds and gilds your days.
It is now left to the “Cello” (Demetrius) to drown them all in the mellow lubricity of his self-regard:
I am Narcissus, she simply the pool,
Obliging, selfless, bright, wherein I see
Intoxicating images of Me,
Classical, isolate, withdrawn and cool.
Rarely have poetry and music interpenetrated as successfully. What Hecht does here is really beyond paraphrase. Poetry becomes music in a kind of mimicry that outsmarts itself and achieves the sublime.
Sections 4 and 5 are devoted largely to humor and elegy. The connecting theme here is personalized memory. The humor is centered on the comedy of naming, the irony of concretion; the elegies are grounded in the obscure and trivial detail of precious and irreducible moments of loving recollection.
We have come full circle to “The Transparent Man.” A palimpsest for history, music, the divine power of naming—to see through a human being is to see into these things. What stands out in Anthony Hecht’s poems is his recovery of characterization—what fiction had once claimed as its forte but gave up for allegory, fantasy, and minimalism. Hecht’s monologues give us back Robert Browning’s Men and Women (1855, 2 volumes). It is curious that a poet so richly identified with the decorum of polished meter and traditional form should be one of our most important sources of the realistic portrayal of human identity.
Sources for Further Study
Atlanta Journal Constitution. August 19, 1990, p. N8.
Bookust. LXXXVI, May 15, 1990, p.1773.
Library Journal. CXV, June 15, 1990, p.115.
The New Leader. LXXIII, October 1, 1990, p. 19.
The New York Times Book Review XCV, July 22, 1990, p.26.
Poetry. CLVII, October, 1990, p.34.
The Southern Review. XXVII, Winter, 1991, p.235.
The Washington Post Book World. XX, July 8, 1990, p. 1.
Washington Times. August 20, 1990, p. Fl.