A poem can alter the past or at least one’s memories, and I suspect paintings and photographs possess similar magic. Here’s an example: Anthony Hecht’s “Memory” from The Light and the Darkness, his final book of poems, published three years before his death in 2004:
“Sepia oval portraits of the family,
Black framed, adorned the small brown-papered hall,
But the parlor was kept unused, never disturbed.
Under a glass bell, the dried hydrangeas
Had bleached to the hue of ancient newspaper,
Though once, someone affirmed, they had been pink.
Pink still were the shining curling orifices
Of matching seashells stationed on the mantel
With mated, spiked, wrought-iron candlesticks.
The room contained a tufted ottoman,
A large elephant-foot umbrella stand
With two malacca canes, and two peacock
Tail feathers sprouting from a small-necked vase.
On a teak side table lay, side by side,
A Bible and a magnifying glass.
Green velvet drapes kept the room dark and airless
Until on sunny days toward midsummer
The brass andirons caught a shaft of light
For twenty minutes in late afternoon
In a radiance dimly akin to happiness –
The dusty gleam of temporary wealth.”
In 21 lines of blank verse, the first 16 of which inventory the contents of an old-fashioned parlor, Hecht creates a world that mingles irrevocably with memories of my maternal grandparents’ houses and apartments. They were peripatetic, moving every few years, sometimes just a few blocks at a time. Their furniture and other possessions were not as uniformly Victorian as those Hecht describes. There was an oversized sewing machine with a cast-iron frame but also a “Hi-Fi” with a wooden cabinet, circa 1959, stocked with Mitch Miller and Burl Ives LPs. I remember dried hydrangeas under a bell jar but don’t know if my memory borrowed them from Hecht, and it’s the same with canes in the umbrella stand and feathers in the vase.
My grandmother died in 1972, age 84; my grandfather, three years later. My parents, too, are dead, and all of my mother’s brothers, and my brother is almost three years younger than I am, and his earliest memories are correspondingly attenuated. My confusion has no solution. Much of the past will remain a puzzle or vacuum. Hecht, in his final lines, seems to recognize this. His “radiance dimly akin to happiness” might be mistaken for gilding the past – that is, for nostalgia and its dubious pleasures. The last line seems to refute this: “The dusty gleam of temporary wealth.” I take “temporary wealth” to mean the possessions described but also the memories that contain them.
Tuesday was the fifth anniversary of Hecht’s death at age 81.