Divided into two parts, this new book contains a collaboration with the artist Leonard Baskin called "Presumptions of Death, " reproducing 22 masterly wood engravings and all of Hecht's other poems written since his last book, The Transparent Man.
Flight Among the Tombs
, Anthony Hecht's sixth book of poems published since 1954, shows one of America's foremost poets working at the top of his form. Part scholar, part circus ringmaster, Hecht calls our attention to three rings of his erudition: classical wit, Renaissance energy, and contemporary doubt. A fragment of Christopher Smart provides the book's title, but George Herbert, in whose clever prosodic vineyards Hecht has long labored, casts the book's longest shadow. The first half contains lyrical poems in which Death--both scythe-hauling figure and physical phenomenon--speaks as the central character inside a collage of masks: carnival barker, film director, society lady, member of the Harlem Guild of St. Luke, and, of course, poet. Hilarious and creepy, the poems combine Hecht's late-modernist sense of ironic humor with an orchestra of Latin and Renaissance conceits, stripping away the latter's theology to express a very inclusive mortality. Yet Hecht, whose deep humanity prevents these poems from becoming mere set pieces of the macabre, turns this message of doom into a call to enjoy the unpredictable in life, as the speaker watching aristocrats dine says in "Death the Mexican Revolutionary,"
We recommend the quail,
Which you'd do well to eat
Before your powers fail,
For I inaugurate
A brand-new social order
Six cold, decisive feet
South of the border.
Several occasional poems in the book's second half mark the passing of Hecht's generation, including "For James Merrill: An Adieu" and "A Death in Winter," honoring the memory of Joseph Brodsky. These poems are particularly moving in light of the rambunctious sensibility of the volume's first half. At turns outrageous and somber, Flight Among the Tombs
is a surprising addition to Hecht's oeuvre. --Edward Skoog