Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Poem of the Week 3/31/2008: Death the Hypocrite

Death the Hypocrite

You claim to loathe me, yet everything you prize
Brings you within the reach of my embrace.
I see right through you though I have no eyes;
You fail to know me even face to face.

Your kiss, your car, cocktail and cigarette,
Your lecheries in fancy and in fact,
Unkindness you manage to forget,
Are ritual prologue to the final act

And certain curtain call. Nickels and dimes
Are but the cold coin of a realm that's mine.
I'm the acute accountant of your crimes
As of your real estate. Bristlecone pine,

Whose close-ringed chronicles mock your regimen
Of jogging, vitamins, and your strange desire
To disregard your assigned three-score and ten,
Yields to my absolute instrument of fire.

You know me, friend, as Faustus, Baudelaire,
Boredom, Self-Hatred, and, still more, Self-Love.
Hypocrite lecteur, mon sembable, mon frere,
Acknowledge me. I fit you like a glove.

Anthony Hecht 1995

Hecht's note: "Some bristlecone pines are the oldest living things on earth . . . a total of seventeen bristlecone pines have been found which, still living and growing, are over 4,000 years old, the oldest some 4,600 years old." Andreas Feininger, from his book Trees.
Also, the line, "Hypocrite lecteur...frere" comes from TS Eliot's "The Waste Land"

This poem springs from a series of "Death" poems by Anthony Hecht, including, Death Demure, Death the Oxford Don, Death the Society Lady, Death the Poet, Death the Judge, Death the Mexican Revolutionary, Death the Whore, Death the Copperplate Printer, and even a set of nursery rhymes about death. This last one is a delicious poem you can check out here:


"Death the Hypocrite" is titled after its narrator, the death that results from hypocrisy, or the death that deals in hypocrisy. It demands us to ask, what has death become in the modern world? Why would somebody try to avoid the question of death, and how? All of the little gimmicks modern man uses to put off the reality of death, that "certain curtain call," are actually tokens of death's appearance, his already having settled in. For fear of death is consciousness of death, is it not? To repress the reality of death is to slide under the need to come to any sort of reckoning with one's life, for life seems endless, formless, interminable. But to not terminate, ever, to simply mist and fritter one's life away, what kind of life is this, Hecht's poem begs us to ask. Indeed, he leaves us almost nowhere to turn for solace, for our small attempts to "preserve life"--jogging, vitamins, etc--shrink to nothing against the 4,600 rings on the bristlecone pine.

No comments: