Monday, March 18, 2013

`Of Which She Is Herself the Howling Center'

Our friend’s garage sale spilled out of the garage, down the driveway and sidewalks, across the lawn and out to the curb, where it petered out with a plastic bag stuffed with stockings. Among the choicest items were the Jack Kennedy-style rocking chair (a steal at $40), a two-volume boxed translation of the Bhagavad Gita and a set of wooden coat hangers. We bought the hangers. The rest was the indifferently accumulated detritus of a lifetime – castoffs, the dregs of abandoned hobbies and fizzled enthusiasms, parts for contemplated but never completed artworks. Here was an embroidered pillow from Acapulco, books on winemaking, cowboy hats and boots, sacks of empty prescription pill bottles, three sets of stereo speakers, a table consisting of a circular sheet of glass and two pieces of fluted concrete, and a belly-dancer’s coin-spangled vest. Anthony Hecht covered this ground in “The Short End” (The Venetian Vespers, 1979), a thirteen-page poem Glyn Maxwell calls a “tragicomedy of an American woman.” It begins with a lovingly catalogued collection of kitsch, mostly pillows: 

“`Greeting from Tijuana!’ on a ground
Of ripe banana rayon with a fat
And couchant Mexican in mid-siesta,
Wrapped in a many-colored Jacobin
Serape, and more deeply rapt in sleep,
Head propped against a phallic organ cactus
Of shamrock green, all thrown against a throw
Of purple on a Biedermeier couch—
This is the latest prize, newly unwrapped,
A bright and shiny capstone to the largest
Assemblage of such pillows in the East…” 

And so on for another richly Dickensian sixty lines or so in the first of the poem’s five sections.  I bring up Dickens for his verbal exuberance, love of the world’s bounty and for his human sympathies. In other hands, the subject of Hecht’s poem, Shirley Carson, might serve as the butt of cheap, condescending jokes. Snobbery is alive and well in American poetry when it comes to suburbia, shopping malls and working-class aesthetics. In Shirley he creates a sympathetic portrait of an unhappy, drink-corroded woman whose tastes in almost everything are tacky. In a June 10, 1978, letter to one of his editors, Harry Ford (Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, 2013), the poet says he sought to “take a character almost entirely unprepossessing, a fat and slovenly drunken woman with garish and vulgar taste, and to try to win the reader’s sympathy for her by the time the poem was over.” Hecht continues: 

“That is to say, if the reader is obliged to reverse his initial sense of repulsion and his emotional bias against her, then the poem would have performed one of the tricks I’d hoped from it.” 

“The Short End” is a series of tableaux from Shirley’s life, verse narrative as short fiction, and sharing kinship with the stories Raymond Carver was writing around the same time, but funnier, sadder and composed in Hecht’s elegant style of late-Jamesian elaboration. Like the narrator of “The Transparent Man,” Shirley is a memorable character, one whose misery and embattled sense of dignity sticks with us, like Henny Pollitt in The Man Who Loved Children. Hecht writes to Ford: 

“I’m puzzled that the poem suggested John O’Hara to you, for to me its atmosphere seems more like Nathaniel West. But if indeed it has that mordancy, if it has the overtones of an Ensor painting, then, though it make the skin crawl somewhat, it will have worked as it should.” 

Hecht tells Ford he has submitted the poem to Howard Moss, then poetry editor of The New Yorker, and after two weeks has heard nothing. In the poem’s final section, and Shirley’s final moments of life, she contemplates an ad in The New Yorker for Drambuie, the Scotch liqueur. A neat irony: the magazine rejected the poem, one of Hecht’s best. In its final lines, as Shirley’s consciousness blurs with the elegant photo in the magazine ad, Hecht writes: 

“Out of these twining, folding, enveloping
Of brass and apricot, biceps and groin,
She sees the last thing she will ever see:
The purest red there is, passional red,
Fire-engine red, the red of Valentines,
Of which she is herself the howling center.”

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