Sydney Lea

Peter Sacks: On "A Hill"

. . . The poem itself is about an involuntary return to a fearful kind of beginning, a scene of "plain bitterness" that has inscribed itself on the mind with something close to infernal insistence. What is interesting here is that this early scene disrupts not only the subsequent conscious mind but also the very network of coded phenomena—friendship, urban architecture, markets of exchange, the accumulations of conventional currencies and representations—that we have come to associate with the bonds and matrices of the cultured self. Against this network, and at the very moment when the civilized scene appears to hold out "gestures of exultation" or intimations of "godliness" (for this poem, too, enacts a kind of fall), an even more compelling imperative forces itself upon the mind. The bonds of artifice or social life are thus disrupted by a yet more severe bondage to a scene of desolation encrypted so deeply in the psyche that its first surfacing is not even recognized as an actual recollection. If we have come to notice the dispossession associated with obedience to the forms of culture and society, "A Hill" portrays a far more frightening and antithetical dispossession—a seizure by the returning perception of a scene of such menacing blankness that it threatens to rip apart those very fabrics of consciousness, society, or art that might have been designed in part to cover its adversarial reality.

Yet the scene is eventually recognized, and it is given both its moment in the time of childhood and its geographical place. The mind also comes to repossess a portion of its own experience, however devastating. Furthermore, there is an undeniable empowerment in the very ability to sweep away the entire realm of Roman piazza and marble palace and to confront us so immediately with their drastic replacement. At the beginning of his book, the poet thus signals one of his powers as being that of making such radical substitutions or regressions, suggesting perhaps that his art will return to the unadorned grounds preceding those of art. Henceforth, no marble palaces will be allowed to exist without the eclipsing awareness of an unaccommodatingly bare hill. No social or aesthetic forms will be free from personal recognitions of desolation.

Reinaugurating an earlier threshold experience, the poem thus acts as a threshold itself: enter this book, recognize this bare hill, pass over the mental boundaries such a crossing implies. At the same time, the poem performs an act of apparent self-grounding (however abysmal), both in returning to a childhood scene and in establishing the hill as a landmark figure for the radically subversive and self-isolating powers of the poet's mind. That such an act should be involuntarily suffered as much as it is performed, and that the recognition of one's own powers of displacement should be bound up in obedience to a psychological imperative—this is of course the kind of paradox that Hecht is inviting us to explore.

Although the ritualistic elements of "A Hill" should already be clear, it may be worth pausing to emphasize their presence, however compressed and internalized. The most obvious, particularly for an opening poem, would be an initiatory rite of passage in which an individual is withdrawn from society, placed in an isolating (and often darkened) scene of instruction, and then "restored / To the sunlight and [his] friends." A society would thereby control a dangerously liminal phase of the individual's transition, while also allowing the initiate to learn certain truths that may otherwise be occulted by social life. Since this poem includes no ushering or supervision within the rite, no real sense of a reinvigorated relationship between individual and society, and only a ravaging scene of dubious and solitary instruction, we see at once that its ritual elements may be anti-types as much as types, although their presence certainly gives a formal gravity and a more than personal depth to the described experience.

Similarly, although there is again a terrifying elision of all that might otherwise graduate the procession, we might see elements of a ritual revisitation, by which an individual leaves his given surroundings in order to revisit a prior scene of crucial importance. Why this particular site holds such force is left implicit in the poem—indeed the unassimilated and uninterpretable barrenness contributes most of the hill's power. This tremendous power of negation even tends to eclipse our speculations on the psychological properties of landscape, or on the tomblike quality of an isolated hill in whose presence this revisitation might distantly resemble the practice of returning to a burial site in order to erect or unveil a memorial. We are not certain of anyone or anything having been buried here, however metaphorically. Perhaps the hill marks the kind of obscured, unconscious loss that lies at the core of melancholy.

By the same negative token, if anything is being preserved or recognized it is the mind's ability to be confronted by plain bitterness, or by the abrupt force of its own displacements—what, after all, assures us that the remembered boyhood self might not have been prey to yet another dissolving trance of involuntary memory while originally staring at the hill? In addition to figuring what we called the poet's radically subversive "powers" of replacement and self-isolation, the hill might thus mark something like an abyss, a capacity for infinite regression within a self that is discontinuously constructed (and possibly undone) by memory. We recall the textual echoes and translations from the "hard hours" back to the "harde stoundes" of an "Ubi Sunt."

One further ritual trace, related to those already mentioned, is the ceremonial "descent" to a scene of revelation, in which the initiate or adept would be confronted with various emblems, or would be induced to experience a moment of possession. Of course Hecht's scenario of possession offers no sacred tokens, no identification with some inspiring god or demon. And the ceremony is as much one of dispossession as of increased power. But his revealed scene does take on the visionary aspect of an eternal presence ("that promised to last forever"), however negative. And the "papery crash / of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth" does have the impact of an absolute, admonitory sign, referring not just to a fall but to a sudden amputative disjoining of branch from tree—perhaps figuring that of the self from some larger matrix, or of part of the self from a more entire identity. Curiously, the gradual return from the revelatory scene to the sunlit market in the piazza is marked by the latter's own fragmentation ("Then prices came through, and fingers"), as if that fabric, like that of the self, can neither be perfectly restored nor regarded as anything but a fragile assemblage of discrete elements, a texture capable of being unraveled to such loose threads as "a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge."

The poem is thus deeply subversive on several fronts; and the power of its subversions is surely increased by the way it seems to have enacted various overlapping rites, almost all of them in a negative or dispossessing mode, despite the empowerments we already noticed. In this vein, the negated allusion to Dante ("It was nothing at all like Dante's") both summons a visionary model and disavows it, thereby pointing to the fact that Hecht's infernal vision is not assimilable to some graduated architecture of a spiritual world any more than to the Farnese Palace. Even to call it "infernal" assigns it the kind of interpreted location that it resists. The blank unassimilability of the memory is its point—along with the utter lack of contexts that might have drawn the recollection into a schema of justice, hope, or guided instruction.

Similarly, any effort to compare the poem with, say, a Wordsworthian "spot of time" must chart its severe difference from even the grimmest of Wordsworth's memorial returns. The blank verse narrative is the same, even the structure whereby the recollecting imagination usurps "ordinary" consciousness. But Hecht offers no obvious recuperative admiration for a growing poetic power and no suggestion of how that power might positively engage the larger designs of nature and society. "A Hill" joins vision with an intransigently bleak anti-vision, certainly not like "the visions of saints, / And perhaps not a vision at all."

Peter Sacks: On "More Light! More Light!"

"More Light! More Light!" enacts the multiplication of historical agony . . . and it does so within a repetitive structure of commands whose totalitarian rigor becomes yet another image of fate itself. The strict quatrains with their ballad rhyme-scheme reinforce this by their allusion to narratives of unavoidable fatality. And once again, the poem has a ritual quality, for it describes savage ceremonies of execution and entombment, the last of which even involves a grotesque kind of game. As the German officer orders the Pole to bury the two Jews alive, then reverses the order after the Pole’s refusal only to reverse it yet again and finally to kill all three, he is degrading their very desire for survival. And the poem itself plays against our desire that at least someone survive the transaction. We become horribly implicated in this poem, beyond merely wondering "what would we have done?" For if we are somehow made to witness the events, we also survive them—in the company of the only other survivor, the Nazi killer. It is this manner in which Hecht has trapped himself and his readers within the uncanny association of narrator-observer, survivor, and killer that most thoroughly seals the darkness of the poem and enforces the most despairing vision of the relation between poetry and the bearing of historical witness.

This time, there is no question of prayer. In the earlier execution, centuries ago, the spectators prayed for the victim's soul, their prayers more than ironized as the dying man "howled for the Kindly Light." In the later scene "No prayers or incense rose up" as the Pole lay bleeding to death. In a literal sense within the poem there were no witnesses (least of all, God!); or if we have been somehow "present," the unavailability of any offered forms of response leaves us arrested in a frozen silence so mute as to render us almost absent. Perhaps this is the ghostly position most of us occupy in relation to the historical events around us. If we resist association with the killer, perhaps in our muteness we should recognize our similarity to the only final attendants on the corpse: "every day came mute / Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air, / And settled upon his eyes in a black soot."

Edward Hirsch: On "More Light! More Light!"

In the ethical cosmology of The Hard Hours there is little room for heroism. …Think of the parable of the Pole and the two Jews in "More Light! More Light!" It serves as the book’s most bracing example – and it is an example – of the way that "casual death" drains away the soul and barbarism dehumanizes its victims. Those victims are not even permitted a "pitiful dignity." The language of the poem is steady and neutral, even documentary, the outrage distanced, the riveting story told without much commentary:

[Hirsch quotes the poem]

In this bleak twentieth century exemplum, heroism is unrewarded and suffering is neither redemptive nor tracendental. It doesn’t signify. The Pole acts humanely (and without any sign higher than his own conscience) and yet he suffers a death as slow and brutal as that of his victims, the Jews who have already lost their souls and now lose their lives, too. The dehumanization is complete – even the guard is metonymically identified only as his "Luger." There are no mourners or saviors in this poem. There is only the relentless stripping certainty of the death camps. And the eventual passing of time. The Goethean ideal of light has been replaced by the banal darkness of evil. Humanism, like the Age of Reason – is effectively over.