Death the Painter
Snub-nosed, bone-fingered, deft with engraving tools,
I alone have been given
The powers of Joshua, who stayed the sun
In its traverse of heaven.*
Here in this Gotham** of unnumbered fools
I have sought out and arrested everyone.
Under my watchful eye all human creatures
Convert to a still life,
As with unique precision I apply
White lead and palette knife.
A model student of remodelled features,
The final barber, the last beautician, I.
You lordlings, what is Man, his blood and vitals,
When all is said and done?
A poor forked animal, a nest of flies.***
Tell us, what is this one
Once shorn of all his dignities and titles,
Divested of his testicles and eyes?
Anthony Hecht 1995
*Cf. Joshua 10.12-13; when Joshua asked the sun and moon to stand still, "the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies"
** Proverbial town (in England) known for its foolish inhabitants.
*** Cf. King Lear 3.4. 101 ff,. where Lear encounters Edgar, disguised in rags as a madman, laments, "Is man no more than this?" and says, "unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art."
Happy Halloween, all! I was going to pick a lovely, etherial poem for today until I realized that it's Halloween! So, I chose Anthony Hecht. He is one of my favorite poets: admittedly a little dark, but genuinely witty, insightful, and a master of form. I may at a future date write about his poem "A Certain Slant," for it is technically brilliant and draws heavily on an Emily Dickinson poem of same name (first line?). At any rate, I encourage you to check it out if you have the chance. Email me for it if you are so inclined!
But back to "Death the Painter." The poem comes from Hecht's collection "The Presumptions of Death" which go along with woodcuts by the American artist Leonard Baskin. I actually have this book, so I will hopefully scan the picture and send it along with the PotW or (somehow) manage to post it on my blog.
To begin, we can note that the title is deeply paradoxical; how can Death be a painter? Painters are artists, and few (if any) things are more destructive than death. It could appear, then, as if Hecht takes a grim satisfaction in representing the artistry of death. This irony leers out from the poem like a skeleton's grin from the page, and the poem's darkness is consuming. Actually, irony is probably the best word to describe this poem. Line after line, Hecht presents us with a Death who is deeply ironic.
In the first stanza, Death is "deft" and stalking. He asserts his power, saying that he "alone [has] been given / the powers of Joshua". It is interesting to think of death as a kind of stoppage of time; after all, when we die, time essentially halts as we know it. Death continues flexing his muscles when he calls humans "unnumbered fools" who he seeks out and arrests. By choosing the word "arrest", Death implies that he is in a police-like position of authority. The rhyme scheme, too, is stronger in this stanza than in the other two; there are only two rhymed sounds (abbbab), which gives it more force. Even the fact that Death is the narrator privileges him.
Irony saturates the second stanza. The first two lines, "under my watchful eye all human creatures / convert to a still life", are sleazy and backwards. "Watchful eye" implies a protector, and yet I doubt that many people see death as a protector, a safe haven. Also, the word "convert" makes it sound like we go willingly, that we march gently into that good night, somehow retaining the vestiges of life without its movement. And though it would be nice to think of one's own death as a conversion to a beautiful piece of art, I have to say that the thought is not comforting. Nor is it meant to be. That Death, with "unique precision" (an odd couple of words, though I suppose that death has a unique sort of power), will daub on white lead with a palette knife is disturbing as well. Though his tools are literally painter's tools, "white lead" could be reference either quicklime that people used to throw over graves or lead's toxicity, while the "palette knife" could be a thinly disguised weapon. It is rhetorically similar, at least. It is ironic as well that Death is a model student, a barber, and a beautician. These are such positive, community-based jobs. And death? Well, community-based (or rather involved, to continue the irony) he may be, but friendly? I should hope not.
Death even goes insofar as to mock us, condescendingly calling man "lordlings" and then asking him what he really is "when all is said and done". Even that familiar phrase halts us, asking us to pay attention to the idea that, at some point in life, everything will be said and done. Finished. Also, the allusion to King Lear touches on the reeling madness that this kind of question can lead to. It is a line of despair tossed in with grim irony and gloating power. The final three lines call on the reader to "tell us, what is this one / Once shorn of all his dignities and titles, / Divested of his testicles and eyes?". It is a sneer, for this is a question for which no human has a definite answer, believe though he might in an afterlife (or lack thereof). The diction is degrading; "shorn" implies a debasement, status as a prisoner. This action involves cutting, severing, so it is an apt choice for the severing that happens in death. The final line is perhaps the most powerful, for Death openly acknowledges that he will take those things that make a man. Testicles and eyes. Now, I don't mean to say that only vision and, to be crude, balls, make a man, but they certainly are key components in masculinity and indeed humanity. One of the most shocking things about coming to college was the absolutely alien visual landscape. To strip a human of sight is like tearing away one of the vestiges of home.
Well, Happy Halloween, all! Some business: keep checking old PotWs. I have been updating them and filling in some of the blanks. This will probably go on for a while, because I didn't actually close-read any of the early ones, and those are some of my favorites. I will let you know which ones I have finished. For this week, I went back and filled in "Skin Full" (10/10). Also, I actually went to school about twenty minutes ago (in the rain! oy vey) to try to scan in and present you with the woodcut, but alas - the library's tech room was closed. In good time, it will come. The woodcuts are really very interesting. They are at once beautiful, grotesque, and deeply ironic. As I read more of the poems, I may report back with the different ways Hecht plays with Death. Odd that in the end the author is the one who toys with death.