Monday, July 21, 2014

`My Efforts at Their Best Are Negative'

“I look and look, / As though I could be saved simply by looking,” says Anthony Hecht’s speaker near the end of “The Venetian Vespers,” the long title poem (more than eight-hundred lines) from his 1979 collection. The speaker is an aging American expatriate living in Venice. In a letter written in 1977 to the poet Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker, Hecht describes his speaker as “a man in a deeply troubled and turbulent state of mind, whose chief torture is that his troubled mind can never be set at ease and satisfied.” Without detailing the family hell he has inherited, it’s sufficient to say we’ve known people like him, and perhaps we ourselves resemble him, and such people will never know the more banal sorts of happiness or even rest. The best they can hope for is to not inflict misery on others. 

One of our neighbors, a middle-aged woman who works in corporate middle-management, lives alone and keeps to herself. On the rare occasions we see her outdoors, her conversation is affable but terse. Her wit is sharp and she appreciates a tart tongue in others. She likes acidic quips. They amuse her and are quickly done with, so she can move on. She has little tolerance for happy talk, what passes for conversation in many quarters today. None of this I report critically. In fact, I like her. People make accommodations with life. We can’t hope to fully understand them because we hardly understand ourselves. Sunday morning, our neighbor’s car – a new and expensive model -- was parked in the street, not in her driveway, as is her custom. Both tires on the driver’s side were flat. More than flat, they were shredded. She drove home on the rims. No explanation, and we never saw her all day. Her newspaper remained on the sidewalk. The neighbors talked, as neighbors will. Concern, potentially juicy gossip, but no ill will. In the sixth and final section of Hecht’s poem he writes:

“My efforts at their best are negative:
A poor attempt not to hurt anyone,
A goal which, in the very nature of things,
Is ludicrous because impossible.” 

Hecht goes on to quote the final three lines of Swift’s “Description of a City Shower,” and writes: “At least I pass them on to nobody, / Not having married, or authored any children, / Leading a monkish life of modest means…”

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