THE DARKNESS AND THE LIGHT
Alfred A. Knopf, $23.00, 67 pages
Anthony Hecht has been described as an "archaic" poet. Besides his propensity for rhyme, and the polished elegance of much of his verse, Hecht has another disturbing quirk: he likes to hide behind various personae, many of them biblical (Saul, David, Abraham, even Mary). Does he employ this primal theatrical trope because he fears his emotions will overwhelm him should he speak more directly?
Born in New York City in 1923, Hecht was thriving at Bard College when World War II intervened, and the freshman found himself in midst of some of the fiercest battles in the European theater. He was also one of the Allied soldiers who liberated from floosenburg, an annex of Buchenwald. In an interview with Philip Hoy, Hecht remembered that when he arrived at Flossenburg prisoners were dying from typhus "at the rate of 500 a day." "For years after," he told Hoy, "I would wake shrieking."
Discharged from the Army, the would-be poet returned to finish his university studies, and become a distinguished professor. During the next fifty years, Hecht published three books of criticism, and myriad assorted writing. The Darkness and the Light is his ninth book of poems.I find Hecht most engaging when telling a story of whose setting he has personal experience. The poem, "Sacrifice," meets this criteria, at least its third part does. It takes place in the Normandy countryside. With the German Army in full retreat, leaving stragglers searching for any means of transportation they could steal, one rural family dismantles their precious bicycle, and hides its parts high in a tree. One morning a young German appears, "with pack and bedroll, rifle, entrenching tools,/Steel helmet and heavy boots." He bullies the nine people outside, where he orders them to give him their "bicyclette." When the only response he can muster is shrugged shoulders, the angry soldier points his rifle at the chest of the eldest son, "perhaps fourteen, but big for his years," and shouts BICYCLETTE! Which only elicits more blank looks.
Here, as if the indicted boy were looking at this world for the last time, and because "there was leisure enough to take full note of this/In the most minute detail as the soldier held/Steady his index finger on the trigger," the poet pauses to describe the chilly morning:
The very grass was a stiff lead-crystal gray,
Through splendidly prismatic where the sun
Made its slow way between the lingering shadows
Of nearby fence posts and more distant trees….
Then, for whatever reason, "The soldier reslung his rifle on his shoulder,/Turned wordlessly and walked down the road/The departed German vehicles had taken." These lines, which, if only for a moment, lend sanity to that misbegotten time, forefront "wordlessly;" as, for many years to come, the family would live together "in agonized, unviolated silence." It is silence that Anthony Hecht can’t bear. He has witnessed, thought about, read of, agonized over, too many horrors to remain silent. Even when indulging in archaism, he is still the master storyteller, teacher, and poet.
© The Oregonian, 2001