Sunday, October 25, 2009

`A Hollow, Deep, Engastrimythic Voice'

We wandered the corn maze (maize maze?) on a pumpkin farm, the narrow paths slippery with gray mud. The effect on a cloud-dim day was claustrophobic. Looked at imaginatively, corn stalks where they meet the ground appear ambulatory, capable of pulling themselves from the soil and, well, stalking human prey.

Halloween is number three in importance on the American kid calendar, after Christmas and one’s birthday, though I’m unable to recapture the spirit of late-October anarchy and greed that drove me when young. I’m indifferent to ghost stories, horror movies and candy, though the boys and I enjoyed the pumpkin slingshot (three small pumpkins for a dollar) and pushing the wheel barrow through the fields of mud to harvest our plenty. We visited the gift shop and bypassed the tattoo parlor, doughnut-and-cider bar and portable toilets. Except for elements lifted from Lewis Carroll and J.K. Rowling, the farm’s iconography was traditional – black cats and black-hatted witches on broomsticks. I once knew a self-identified witch living in upstate New York but the only thing scary about him was the intensity of his narcissism.

I’ve been rereading with acute pleasure all the published poetry of Anthony Hecht, including “The Witch of Endor,” a sonnet collected in The Darkness and the Light (2001):

“I had the gift, and arrived at the technique
That called up spirits from the vasty deep
To traffic with our tumid flesh, to speak
Of the unknown regions where the buried keep
Their counsel, but for such talents I was banned
By Saul himself from sortilege and spell
Who banished thaumaturges from the land
Where in their ignorance the living dwell.

“But then he needed me; he was sore afraid,
And begged for forbidden commerce with the dead.
Samuel he sought, and I raised up that shade,
Laggard, resentful, with shawl-enfolded head,
Who spoke a terrible other-wordly curse
In a hollow, deep, engastrimythic voice.”

This is minor Hecht, hardly more than a first-person retelling of a story in the first Book of Samuel, 28: 3-25. The witch’s pairing of “gift” and “technique” might describe a poet’s calling, an impression reinforced by the Shakespeare allusion: Glendower boasts: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur replies, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?” (Henry IV, Part I -- Act 3, Scene 1). “Sortilege” is a form of divination involving the casting of lots (also found in First Samuel, 10: 17-24 and 14: 42). A “thaumaturge” is one who performs miracles or acts of magic. “Sore afraid” is another biblical echo, this time the New Testament – Luke 2: 8-9.

Hecht is renowned for his rich vocabulary. He enjoys resuscitating such deliciously recondite words as “engastrimythic” – literally, speaking from the belly but meaning that which relates to ventriloquism. In this case, “a hollow, deep, engastrimythic voice” is the sort I used to scare the hell out of the kids when they thought we were lost forever in the corn maze.

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