Thursday, July 10, 2014

`This Evening's Perfection'

A chemical engineer returned from three years in Abu Dhabi spoke excitedly about his research niche – flow assurance, with an emphasis on asphaltene deposition. In the vernacular, that means plugged pipes. He recalled seeing puddles of crude among the rocks in the desert – black from a distance, shimmering and iridescent up close, like the wings of a butterfly. “So beautiful, what you expect to be ugly,” he said, still marveling, as does the speaker in Anthony Hecht’s “Late Afternoon: The Onslaught of Love” (The Darkness and the Light, 2001). He sketches a seaside scene in Italy, appealing to at least three of the five senses. Here is the visual: 

“And large oily patches floated on the water,
Undulating unevenly
In the purple sunlight
Like the surfaces of Florentine bronze.” 

And this: 

“Richer than double-colored taffeta,
Oil floated in the harbor,
Amoeboid, iridescent, limp.
It called to mind the slender limbs
Of Donatello's `David.’” 

Later, the world is “empurpled” by sunlight. Almost incidentally, we glimpse a woman “in love.” The poem itself is a sort of painting, with much attention devoted to lighting. The first and last stanzas begin with “At this time of day,” and the poem concludes: 

“Nothing designed by Italian artisans
Would match this evening's perfection.
The puddled oil was a miracle of colors.” 

Even the humblest aspects of the natural world exceed human creation. Donatello sculpted two David’s. The bronze (perhaps “Florentine bronze” is Hecht’s nod to Donatello) was commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici after 1430. The figure’s stance is contrapposto, with most of his weight on one foot and his body slightly twisted. He appears unheroic, boyish, almost girlish, in contrast to Michelangelo’s David. 

The poem first appeared in the Nov. 27, 2000, issue of The New Yorker, and is dedicated to Hecht’s friends William and Emily Maxwell. The former, a novelist and longtime New Yorker editor, had died the previous July 31.  His wife died eight days earlier, and Hecht died in 2004. In Maxwell’s greatest novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), he refers to a piece by another Italian sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, titled “Palace at 4 a.m.” The work stirs Maxwell to a passage of complex eloquence: 

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.  Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.  In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”’

1 comment:

Buce said...

Just the other night reading some stuff about how the Hellenistic empires used to deal with lime accretions in pipes. Apparently they'd send some guy in to scrape it off. Add that to the list of jobs I'm glad I haven't had to endure.

[The general topic was ancient engineering--evidently the Hellenistics were actually pretty good at piping water. They also knew how to use the arch, but somehow it never occurred to them to build an aqueduct. So, all the pipes lay on the ground.]