Anthony Hecht’s seventh collection, The Darkness and the Light, is a mesmerization by poetic prism. The light flashes, then goes dark, and we are under his spell. From love under a Florentine sunset to staring down the barrel of a NAZI rifle, there seems to be no subject on which Hecht cannot speak with passion and compassion.
There is much about seeing in here. As with the title, the eyes in this collection both stumble in the dark and are amazed with illumination. Many of these lyric poems end with a tremulous moment of light. The book’s initial poem, “Late Afternoon: The Onslaught of Love,” closes with this: “Nothing designed by Italian artisans / Would match this evening’s perfection. / The puddled oil was a miracle of colors.” Similarly, in “Despair,” we are moved from darkness to light:
But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine.
Throughout the book, light continually comes upon us, and startles us as it does Paul in “The Road to Damascus,” who is moved from “sighted blindness to blind sight.” Humanity is a dark thing for Hecht, one that is repeatedly blessed by short bursts of revelation.
Sight, the predominant idea of the book, announces itself with the voice of the mirror. A poetic tradition for centuries, Hecht’s mirror is a jaded one:
“Beauty, your highness, dwells in the clouded cornea
Of the self-deceived beholder, whereas Truth,
According to film moguls of California,
Lies in makeup, smoke and mirrors, gin and vermouth…
The mirror lists attempts by various people to find the truth though glass, some successful, some not. In the final stanzas of the poem, the mirror admits: “It’s when no one’s around that I’m most truthful. . .” and continues:
Light fades, of course, with the oncoming of dusk;
I faithfully note the rheostat dial of day
That will rise to brilliance, weaken as it must
Through each uncalibrated shade of gray,
One of them that of winter afternoons,
Desolate, leaden, and in its burden far
Deeper than darkness, engrossing in its tones
Those shrouded regions where the meanings are.”
This is the daily death of the mirror, when the light goes down, and it is when the mirror is most in touch with the truth — not in the black and white reflection of fact, but in the “uncalibrated” gray, the edge of darkness Hecht is searching through to break out into the light.
This is a book, of course, concerned with being an aging master as well — and a master Hecht is. His control of meter appears effortless, as he varies it from the strict iambic of “Haman” which rhymes on only two sounds, “ure” and “are,” close enough in themselves to be considered rhymes by some, to the free verse of “Late Afternoon.” The final poems of the book deal most directly with this issue of aging. In “Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-seven,” Hecht is at his most eloquent and bittersweet. “Long gone the smoke-and-pepper childhood smell / Of the smoldering immolation of the year,” he begins, and guides us lovingly through the dance, until its end:
A turn, a glide, a quarter-turn and bow,
The stately dance advances; these are airs
Bone-deep and numbing as I should know by now,
Diminishing the cast, like musical chairs.
Hecht meditates on the dying of the evening light, and its kinship to growing old in the last poem, “The Darkness and the Light are Both Alike to Thee.” “Like trailing silks, the light / Hangs in the olive trees / As the pale wine of day / Drains to its very lees,” he writes, and continues:
. . . Like the elderly and frail
Who’ve lasted through the night,
. . . For whom the rising light
Entails their own eclipse,
Brightening as they fail.
The poem’s title is a line from Psalm 139, in which David asks God to search his soul because he recognizes that God can see regardless of light, something man will never achieve. Like Hecht in his book, we can’t see in the dark. But even in the dark of late old age, there is still the reach towards light: “Nature, as morning’s cinnabar east ignites / . . . the instinctive sunflower turns its head.”