ASHES TO ASHES.

I should have posted something about the death last month of Anthony Hecht; he’s one of the poets who’s helped me through the past few decades, not only by his reliable craftsmanship (a rare trait these days, shared with the too-little-appreciated Richard Wilbur) but by his dogged investigation of the darker side of human behavior (prompted by what he saw during World War Two, including both heavy fighting and the liberation of a concentration camp). But I had problems of my own and couldn’t even begin to frame a post, so I let it go.
Now, reading the NY Times Sunday Book Review (this week a special Poetry Issue, though as my wife says most people will toss it out thinking it’s a particularly cheesy advertising supplement with its hideous yellow-and-red cover), I come across an appreciation by David Yezzi that does a better job than I would have done:

He internalized the prosodic traditions of English the way a virtuoso violinist works a complex sequence of rhythm and pitch into muscle memory. The rest is making music. Hecht played fluently in any key: the minor organ tones of his Jamesian ”Venetian Vespers,” the major-chord affirmations of the love poem ”Peripeteia,” the sober procession of his canzone ”Terms,” and ”The Dover Bitch,” his buffo sendup of Matthew Arnold: ”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., etc.’ ”
Hecht’s sumptuous verse earned him a reputation for accomplished formalism, but that, I think, says more about the free-verse age in which he wrote than about his sterling achievement. He was a poet who, like Thomas Hardy, could capture in the image of a barren landscape the specters of history.
Hecht’s poems often layer biblical and classical themes over modern or even quotidian concerns, creating rich palimpsests at once immediate and broad-reaching in their implications. The binding of Isaac, for instance, becomes a resonant image in Hecht’s war poetry. His keen dramas—a family held by a soldier at gunpoint, a tourist ripped off in Naples, a miscarriage—and his various personae reflect a poet attempting, as Hecht once said, to disguise himself. Yet the poet’s impersonality never dulls emotion; it tempers it to heartbreaking effect…

Towards the end, Yezzi quotes Hecht’s ”Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-seven”:

The dramatis personae of our lives
Dwindle and wizen; familiar boyhood shames,
The tribulations one somehow survives,
Rise smokily from propitiatory flames
Of our forgetfulness until we find
It becomes strangely easy to forgive
Even ourselves with this clouding of the mind,
This cinerous blur and smudge in which we live.

I was struck by the word cinerous: it clearly had something to do with ashes (Latin cinis, root ciner-), but what exactly did it mean? It’s not in the OED, surprisingly, but Webster’s Third International has it: ‘a light bluish gray to light gray that is redder and darker than skimmed-milk white and very slightly redder than glaucous gray.’ I’m sure that presents an exact image to someone familiar with color nomenclature, but for me it reduces to a blend of ‘off-white’ and ‘light gray,’ which I hope is good enough for Hecht’s purposes. What caught my attention, though, was the entry a few lines above: cinereous ‘gray tinged or shaded with black.’ Now, I love the variety and depth of the English vocabulary, but this seemed excessive; who could possibly keep those two words apart, one meaning gray verging on white and the other gray tinged with black? To make matters worse, there’s an alternate form cinereal defined as ‘cinereous.’ (I might add that the OED does have cinereous, defined as ‘Of an ashy hue, ash-coloured, ashen-gray’—but what color are these ashes?) And to make matters worse, Aegypius monachus is known in English as both cinereous vulture and cinerous vulture. Sometimes it’s all just too much, and nothing but poetry helps.
Incidentally, this may be my last post until Sunday; my laptop died and I’m leaving for Thanksgiving with the inlaws right after lunch. I wish a happy holiday to those of my readers who celebrate it, and may the cinerous blur and smudge in which we live spare all of us any unnecessary grief.

Comments

  1. Thank you, LH – another terrific author for my long reading list.
    As to your melancholy wish – I hope brisk November air and country skies will clear the blur and that ugly smudge, too.
    {The color: grossly simplifying, imagine that “salt and pepper” – or, better, a Weimaraner – see, it could be beautiful)
    I wish you could dine at my table on Thursday – I’m doing some “creative cooking” – cornish hens with pomegranates, persimmons and cranberry – last Thanksgiving in my old house.
    Autumn is so energizing!

  2. ben wolfson says:

    The ashes of paper frequently have a bluish tinge–not really light grey or off-white, it’s different.

  3. Tatyana: Thanks for the Weimaraners; they do make a nice image to go with the word! (I once met several of Wegman’s Weimaraners, a real highlight of my time in NYC.) And I wish I could share your meal — it sounds fantastic. (I think Cornish hens are much more interesting than turkey, though I enjoy turkey once a year.)
    Ben: That’s my problem with “ash-colored” — ashes are all sorts of colors.

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