Anthony Hecht |
I'm mighty glad to see you, Mrs.
And thank you very kindly for this visit--
Especially now when all the others here
Are having holiday visitors, and I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way.
It's mainly because of Thanksgiving.
All these mothers
And wives and husbands gaze at me soulfully
And feel they should break up their box of chocolates
For a donation, or hand me a chunk of fruitcake.
What they don't understand and never guess
Is that it's better for me without a family;
It's a great blessing.
Though I mean no harm.
And as for visitors, why, I have you,
All cheerful, brisk and punctual every Sunday,
Like church, even if the aisles smell of phenol.
And you always bring even better gifts than any
On your book-trolley.
Though they mean only good,
Families can become a sort of burden.
I've only got my father, and he won't come,
Poor man, because it would be too much for him.
And for me, too, so it's best the way it is.
He knows, you see, that I will predecease him,
Which is hard enough.
It would take a callous man
To come and stand around and watch me failing.
(Now don't you fuss; we both know the plain facts.
But for him it's even harder.
He loved my mother.
They say she looked like me; I suppose she may have.
Or rather, as I grew older I came to look
More and more like she must one time have looked,
And so the prospect for my father now
Of losing me is like having to lose her twice.
I know he frets about me.
Tells me he phones in every single day,
Hoping that things will take a turn for the better.
But with leukemia things don't improve.
It's like a sort of blizzard in the bloodstream,
A deep, severe, unseasonable winter,
The white blood cells
Multiply crazily and storm around,
Out of control.
Hasn't helped much, and it makes my hair fall out.
I know I look a sight, but I don't care.
I care about fewer things; I'm more selective.
It's got so I can't even bring myself
To read through any of your books these days.
It's partly weariness, and partly the fact
That I seem not to care much about the endings,
How things work out, or whether they even do.
What I do instead is sit here by this window
And look out at the trees across the way.
You wouldn't think that was much, but let me tell you,
It keeps me quite intent and occupied.
Now all the leaves are down, you can see the spare,
Delicate structures of the sycamores,
The fine articulation of the beeches.
I have sat here for days studying them,
And I have only just begun to see
What it is that they resemble.
One by one,
They stand there like magnificent enlargements
Of the vascular system of the human brain.
I see them there like huge discarnate minds,
Lost in their meditative silences.
The trunks, branches and twigs compose the vessels
That feed and nourish vast immortal thoughts.
So I've assigned them names.
There, near the path,
Is the great brain of Beethoven, and Kepler
Haunts the wide spaces of that mountain ash.
This view, you see, has become my Hall of Fame,
It came to me one day when I remembered
Mary Beth Finley who used to play with me
When we were girls.
One year her parents gave her
A birthday toy called "The Transparent Man.
It was made of plastic, with different colored organs,
And the circulatory system all mapped out
In rivers of red and blue.
She'd ask me over
And the two of us would sit and study him
Together, and do a powerful lot of giggling.
I figure he's most likely the only man
Either of us would ever get to know
Intimately, because Mary Beth became
A Sister of Mercy when she was old enough.
She must be thirty-one; she was a year
Older than I, and about four inches taller.
I used to envy both those advantages
Back in those days.
Anyway, I was struck
Right from the start by the sea-weed intricacy,
The fine-haired, silken-threaded filiations
That wove, like Belgian lace, throughout the head.
But this last week it seems I have found myself
Looking beyond, or through, individual trees
At the dense, clustered woodland just behind them,
Where those great, nameless crowds patiently stand.
It's become a sort of complex, ultimate puzzle
And keeps me fascinated.
My eyes are twenty-twenty,
Or used to be, but of course I can't unravel
The tousled snarl of intersecting limbs,
That mackled, cinder grayness.
It's a riddle
Beyond the eye's solution.
If there is order in all that anarchy
Of granite mezzotint, that wilderness,
It takes a better eye than mine to see it.
It set me on to wondering how to deal
With such a thickness of particulars,
Deal with it faithfully, you understand,
Without blurring the issue.
Of course I know
That within a month the sleeving snows will come
With cold, selective emphases, with massings
And arbitrary contrasts, rendering things
Deceptively simple, thickening the twigs
To frosty veins, bestowing epaulets
And decorations on every birch and aspen.
And the eye, self-satisfied, will be misled,
Thinking the puzzle solved, supposing at last
It can look forth and comprehend the world.
That's when you have to really watch yourself.
So I hope that you won't think me plain ungrateful
For not selecting one of your fine books,
And I take it very kindly that you came
And sat here and let me rattle on this way.
Anthony Hecht |
1) I was born in a Free City, near the North Sea.
2) In the year of my birth, money was shredded into
A loaf of bread cost a million marks.
course I do not remember this.
3) Parents and grandparents hovered around me.
world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws.
4) A cornucopia filled with treats took me into a building
A wide-bosomed teacher took me in.
5) At home the bookshelves connected heaven and earth.
6) On Sundays the city child waded through pinecones
and primrose marshes, a short train ride away.
7) My country was struck by history more deadly than
earthquakes or hurricanes.
8) My father was busy eluding the monsters.
told me the walls had ears.
I learned the burden of secrets.
9) I moved into the too bright days, the too dark nights
10) Two parents, two daughters, we followed the sun
and the moon across the ocean.
My grandparents stayed
behind in darkness.
11) In the new language everyone spoke too fast.
I caught up with them.
12) When I met you, the new language became the language
13) The death of the mother hurt the daughter into poetry.
The daughter became a mother of daughters.
14) Ordinary life: the plenty and thick of it.
threads to everywhere.
The past pushed away, the future left
unimagined for the sake of the glorious, difficult, passionate
15) Years and years of this.
16) The children no longer children.
An old man's pain, an
old man's loneliness.
17) And then my father too disappeared.
18) I tried to go home again.
I stood at the door to my
childhood, but it was closed to the public.
19) One day, on a crowded elevator, everyone's face was younger
20) So far, so good.
The brilliant days and nights are
breathless in their hurry.
We follow, you and I.
Anthony Hecht |
What is unwisdom but the lusting after
Longevity: to be old and full of days!
For the vast and unremitting tide of years
Casts up to view more sorrowful things than joyful;
And as for pleasures, once beyond our prime,
They all drift out of reach, they are washed away.
And the same gaunt bailiff calls upon us all.
Summoning into Darkness, to those wards
Where is no music, dance, or marriage hymn
That soothes or gladdens.
To the tenements of Death.
Not to be born is, past all yearning, best.
And second best is, having seen the light.
To return at once to deep oblivion.
When youth has gone, and the baseless dreams of youth,
What misery does not then jostle man's elbow,
Join him as a companion, share his bread?
Betrayal, envy, calumny and bloodshed
Move in on him, and finally Old Age--
Infirm, despised Old Age--joins in his ruin,
The crowning taunt of his indignities.
So is it with that man, not just with me.
He seems like a frail jetty facing North
Whose pilings the waves batter from all quarters;
From where the sun comes up, from where it sets,
From freezing boreal regions, from below,
A whole winter of miseries now assails him,
Thrashes his sides and breaks over his head.
Anthony Hecht |
On the summer road that ran by our front porch
Lizards and snakes came out to sun.
It was hot as a stove out there, enough to scorch
A buzzard's foot.
Still, it was fun
To lie in the dust and spy on them.
Near but remote,
They snoozed in the carriage ruts, a smile
In the set of the jaw, a fierce pulse in the throat
Working away like Jack Doyle's after he'd run the mile.
Aunt Martha had an unfair prejudice
Against them (as well as being cold
) She was pretty inflexible in this,
Being a spinster and all, and old.
So we used to slip them into her knitting box.
In the evening she'd bring in things to mend
And a nice surprise would slide out from under the socks.
It broadened her life, as Joe said.
Joe was my friend.
But we never did it again after the day
Of the big wind when you could hear the trees
Creak like rocking chairs.
She was looking away
Off, and kept saying, "Sweet Jesus, please
Don't let him near me.
He's as like as twins.
He can crack us like lice with his fingernail.
I can see him plain as a pikestaff.
Look how he grins
And swings the scaly horror of his folded tail.
Anthony Hecht |
So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, "Try to be true to me,
And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc.
Well now, I knew this girl.
It's true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
the notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck.
She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry.
To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As sort of a mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
and finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn't judge her by that.
What I mean to say is,
She's really all right.
I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right.
We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it's a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come,
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d'Amour.
note: See Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach"]
Anthony Hecht |
For Heinrich Blucher and Hannah Arendt
Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
"I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.
Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.
His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.
And that was but one, and by no means one of he worst;
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,
That shall judge all men, for his soul's tranquility.
We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.
Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared.
But he did refuse.
A Luger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.
Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and to get back in.
No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Luger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.
No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.
Anthony Hecht |
A dying firelight slides along the quirt
Of the cast iron cowboy where he leans
Against my father's books.
Whirls into darkness.
My girl in skin tight jeans
Fingers a page of Captain Marriat
Inviting insolent shadows to her shirt.
We rise together to the second floor.
Outside, across the lake, an endless wind
Whips against the headstones of the dead and wails
In the trees for all who have and have not sinned.
She rubs against me and I feel her nails.
Although we are alone, I lock the door.
The eventual shapes of all our formless prayers:
This dark, this cabin of loose imaginings,
Wind, lip, lake, everything awaits
The slow unloosening of her underthings
And then the noise.
Something is dropped.
against the attic beams.
I climb the stairs
Armed with a belt.
A long magnesium shaft
Of moonlight from the dormer cuts a path
Among the shattered skeletons of mice.
A great black presence beats its wings in wrath.
Above the boneyard burn its golden eyes.
Some small grey fur is pulsing in its grip.
Anthony Hecht |
In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur,
I had a vision once - though you understand
It was nothing at all like Dante's, or the visions of saints,
And perhaps not a vision at all.
I was with some friends,
Picking my way through a warm sunlit piazza
In the early morning.
A clear fretwork of shadows
From huge umbrellas littered the pavement and made
A sort of lucent shallows in which was moored
A small navy of carts.
Books, coins, old maps,
Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints
Were all on sale.
The colors and noise
Like the flying hands were gestures of exultation,
So that even the bargaining
Rose to the ear like a voluble godliness.
And then, where it happened, the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare.
It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall.
There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life.
And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle.
A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone.
But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.
And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.
Then prices came through, and fingers, and I was restored
To the sunlight and my friends.
But for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn't troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.
Anthony Hecht |
It was a villainous spirit, snub-nosed, foul
Of breath, thick-taloned and malevolent,
That squatted within him wheresoever he went
And possessed the soul of Saul.
There was no peace on pillow or on throne.
In dreams the toothless, dwarfed, and squinny-eyed
Started a joyful rumor that he had died
Unfriended and alone.
The doctors were confounded.
In his distress, he
Put aside arrogant ways and condescended
To seek among the flocks where they were tended
By the youngest son of Jesse,
A shepherd boy, but goodly to look upon,
Unnoticed but God-favored, sturdy of limb
As Michelangelo later imagined him,
Comely even in his frown.
Shall a mere shepherd provide the cure of kings?
Heaven itself delights in ironies such
As this, in which a boy's fingers would touch
And by a modal artistry assemble
The very Sons of Morning, the ranked and choired
Heavens in sweet laudation of the Lord,
And make Saul cease to tremble.
Anthony Hecht |
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.
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?