Mnemosyne—Titaness and personification of memory in Greek mythology—was mother to the Muses; her nine consecutive nights of coition with Zeus produced lyric poetry, history, music, tragedy, astronomy, and so on. Memory, like the Muses themselves, will not always perform on command; trying to recall a past event doesn’t necessarily get one very far. But, as Marcel Proust knew, occasionally the past comes back unbidden and more vividly than if it had been consciously called up. Proust’s famous episode at the beginning of À la recherche du temps perdu captures young Marcel’s experience of this kind of “involuntary memory”:
I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.
Depending on the person, involuntary memory—the sense that one has not merely recalled a feeling but is the feeling—can extend to the darker emotions as well: hate, anger, dread, guilt. These feelings frequently grip military veterans, as they revisit, against their will, earlier traumatic episodes, what clinicians of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (ptsd) call “re-experiencing.”
Re-experiencing may take the form of nightmares, flashbacks, and other involuntary memories, or “intrusions.” Certain stimuli—a sound, a smell, a particular image or word—will cause an instant awakening of the traumatic event: in a trice the person is there once more, awash with anguish. Dr. Neil Weissman, a psychologist practicing in Maryland, who works regularly with veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Gulf War, and Iraq, describes it this way:
The trauma never gets placed in the past; it’s always in the present. In re-experiencing, [one] is not able to say, “That happened then; this is now.” There’s a loss of the sense of the temporal dimension. It’s being felt now, and oftentimes [veterans] see scenes that occurred in the past in the present. . . . It doesn’t feel like a memory; it feels like an event.
The experience of involuntary memory—along with other symptoms of ptsd such as “avoidance” of the trauma and “hypervigilance,” the sense of being constantly in danger—figures in several poems by Anthony Hecht, who has written indelibly and powerfully about the Second World War.
In an interview with Philip Hoy from 1999, Hecht acknowledged suffering from ptsd, a condition frequently more pronounced after the veteran returns to normal life. Born in 1923, Hecht left Bard College in 1943 to begin his army training. After the war, he attended, with the help of the G. I. Bill, Kenyon College, where John Crowe Ransom selected some of his earliest poems for The Kenyon Review. From Kenyon, he went on to teach at Iowa, where the trauma of the war at last caught up with him and with renewed force: “In my second term [at Iowa],” Hecht tells Hoy:
I had what in those primitive days was called a “nervous breakdown,” and which today would be styled a “post-traumatic shock syndrome.” It was arrogant and foolish of me to have supposed that my war experiences could be smoothly expunged by a couple of weeks of heavy drinking. I returned to my parents’ home in New York and entered psychoanalysis. Of course, my analyst, a good and decent man, but an orthodox Freudian, was not prepared to believe that my troubles were due wholly, or even largely, to the war, so we went ambling back together, down the rocky garden path to my infancy.
ptsd, which Hecht calls “post-traumatic shock,” was added to the standard manual of mental disorders after Vietnam and was still a relatively new classification when Hecht referred to it in 1999, but the condition itself, some have argued, finds literary expression in Shakespeare and as far back as Homer. The condition came to be known in modern warfare variously as “soldier’s heart,” “shell shock,” “combat fatigue,” “gross stress reaction,” “war neurosis,” and “combat neurosis.”
Hecht’s postwar breakdown in 1947 and his subsequent anxiety over the threat of madness find their way into “Third Avenue in Sunlight.” John (a semblable of Hecht) recalls playing Cowboys and Indians as a kid in Central Park—an activity that Hecht as a boy growing up on the Upper East Side likely took part in himself. Grown now and drinking heavily (as Hecht did for weeks after the war) in a bar under the Third Avenue El, John reveals how those movie-variety Indians from childhood wouldn’t leave him alone:
But still those savages,
War-painted, a flap of leather at the loins,
File silently against him. Hostages
are never taken. One summer, in Des Moines,
They entered his hotel room, tomahawks
Flashing like barracuda. He tried to pray.
Three years of treatment. Occasionally he talks
About how he almost didn’t get away.
Daily the prowling sunlight whets its knife
Along the sidewalk. We almost never meet.
In the Rembrandt dark he lifts his amber life.
My bar is somewhat further down the street.
Hecht’s savage memories of combat, as well as certain childhood traumas—which included his father’s multiple suicide attempts—haunted him, returning in both his life and his poems, flashing like barracudas.
A descendant of Bavarian Jews, Hecht served in the Army during the Second World War and was present at the liberation of Flossenbürg concentration camp on the Czech border, less than a two-hour drive from his great-grandfather’s town of Buttenheim. Typical of veterans of that war, he almost never talked about the grisly events he witnessed there, though it’s clear from interviews that what he saw, both at Flossenbürg and in combat, changed him forever. Of his first experience of battle he wrote, “our friends and colleagues, with whom we had trained, undergone real privations and endured grave dangers were now legless, armless, or dead.” Hecht thoroughly hated the Army; he found it dehumanizing and numbing. He had hoped for officer candidacy, but, through a bureaucratic bait-and-switch, served as a private, routinely subject to incompetent authority: “I found all of the officers I encountered from the rank of captain on up were contemptible and often ignorant, swaggering in the full vigor of their incapacity.” He had hoped that the ordinary draftees were at least “good and generous people,” but his first weeks of heavy combat disabused him of this.
The symptoms of ptsd, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, include, among other telltales, negative changes in beliefs and feelings, difficulty sleeping, and avoiding situations that remind one of the event. Certainly, Hecht expressed in interviews how the traumas of childhood and the war altered his worldview. One can trace these changes in poems such as “Apprehensions,” “The Cost,” “Rites and Ceremonies,” and “It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.,” to name only a few. As for interrupted sleep, Hecht recounted to Hoy how for years nightmares about the war caused him to wake up “shrieking.” Recently, Hecht’s widow, Helen, told me that those episodes recurred for the rest of his life. Hecht found his treatment in 1947 helpful, if not wholly curative, as much for his analyst’s kindness as for his methods. But his doctor was not wrong to delve into Hecht’s memories from childhood. As J. D. McClatchy has noted, Hecht’s wartime trauma mingled with childhood trauma in the poems, such that they focus and amplify each other.
Hecht renders “involuntary memory” most starkly and dramatically at the end of “Still Life,” from The Venetian Vespers (1977). For several tightly turned stanzas, Hecht focuses ostensibly on the natural world, describing a lake at dawn, ringed with dew-covered grass:
Everything’s doused and diamonded with wet.
A cobweb, woven taut
On bending stanchion frames of tentpole grass,
Sags like a trampoline or firemen’s net
With all the glitter and riches it has caught,
Each drop a paperweight of Steuben glass.
No birdsong yet, no cricket, nor does the trout
Explode in water-scrolls
For a skimming fly. All that is yet to come.
Things are as still and motionless throughout
The universe as ancient Chinese bowls,
And nature is magnificently dumb.
Why does this so much stir me, like a code
Or mufﬂed intimation
Of purposes and preordained events?
It knows me, and I recognize its mode
Of cautionary, spring-tight hesitation,
This silence so impacted and intense.
As in a water-surface I behold
The first, soft, peach decree
Of light, its pale, inaudible commands.
I stand beneath a pine-tree in the cold,
Just before dawn, somewhere in Germany,
A cold, wet Garand rifle in my hands.
The poet senses that the landscape “knows” him, that Proustian identity that Hecht, in “Proust on Skates,” refers to wryly as “the clear brew of simmering memory,” “a view steeped in a sip of tea.” The verb is telling: the viewer is not separate from the scene but steeped in it. This jump at the end of the poem from the present to a simultaneous, historical present—note the verb tense of “stand”—captures the strange disruption of re-experiencing, in which the memory (as in other poems such as “A Deep Breath at Dawn,” originally titled “Aubade”) is awakened by night giving way to the first signs of morning. The polarity of darkness and light, which runs throughout Hecht’s poems—his final collection is titled The Darkness and the Light—finds an early expression in his war poems: “Darkness is for the poor, and thorough cold,/ As they go wandering the hills at night,/ Gunning for enemies . . .”
(“Christmas Is Coming”). In “Still Life” Hecht is transported in an instant—in the interstices, without transition—back to the war and backward into darkness.
It is perhaps noteworthy that Hecht’s most traumatic memory of the war, apart from Flossenbürg, took place in the morning hours. As in “A Deep Breath at Dawn” and “Still Life,” dawn is the hour when the “peach decree of light” introduces a false promise of calm to the unrelieved terror of night patrol:
The mood of the company was shaken when, one morning, we found ourselves hugging the ground at the crest of a hill, in the shadow of trees, looking out across a green field that dipped shallowly in the middle before rising to a small height not far away, and behind which German troops were lobbing mortar shells at us. We fired back, and the exchange went on for a while, until at last the enemy simply stopped firing. This could, of course, have been preliminary to something else, a trick, anything. We remained exactly where we were. And then, to my astonishment, a small group of German women, perhaps five or six, leading small children by the hand, and with white flags of surrender fixed to staves and broom-handles, came up over the far crest and started walking slowly toward us, waving their white flags back and forth. . . . When they were about half way, and about to climb the slope leading to our position, two of our machine guns opened up and slaughtered the whole group.
That morning left him “without the least vestige of patriotism or national pride.”
According to the National Council on Disabilities, the veteran may be overrun not only with horrifying images but also with sounds and other sensations of the traumatic event. The poet Alan Dugan, a contemporary of Hecht’s, writes about the sound of rifle fire returning to him out of the blue in “Family Scene: Young Vet and Relatives.” When the soldier gets home, he is asked what he thinks of the war: “He will smile and corroborate the evidence/ as quickly as the expensive magazines/ that tell him weekly what he wants or knows.” “Then he will callously repeat his notions/ from their lips,” “play back the phonograph of their belief”:
while in the closet his overcoat is hung,
ready and fixed in the shape of his shoulders;
while he hears, if he stops dead for a moment,
the hate hawked on every corner of his suburb
and the sound of the gun he thought silent.
In one of Hecht’s most admired poems, “A Hill,” a mysterious rifle crack disrupts the silence. It has an eerie, unnerving effect in the poem, which begins in a sunlit market of the Campo de’ Fiori, over which the Farnese Palace looms down Baudelari Street, and shifts abruptly to a desolate winter landscape and back into the light. The “vision” strikes Hecht abruptly and reads like a textbook flashback:
And then, where it happened, the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.
And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.
Then prices came through, and fingers, and I was restored
To the sunlight and my friends. But for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn’t troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.
The poem combines the kind of rapid psychic transport with a deep emotional reading of landscape that embeds traumas of both childhood and the war. Hecht attended Bard College north of Poughkeepsie, and his career there was cut short by the war. It was also at Bard where he was confronted yet again with his father’s erratic behavior in a possible attempted kidnapping. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Hecht was the first poet to receive the Rome Prize, from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1951, and he returned to Rome and to other parts of Italy frequently throughout his life.
“As for ‘A Hill,’ ” Hecht wrote in a letter to McClatchy,
it is the nearest I was able to come in [The Hard Hours] to what Eliot somewhere describes as an obsessive image or symbol—something from deep in our psychic life that carries a special burden of meaning and feeling for us. In my poem I am really writing about a pronounced feeling of loneliness and abandonment in childhood, which I associate with a cold and unpeopled landscape. My childhood was doubtless much better than that of many, but my brother was born epileptic when I was just over two, and from then on all attention was, very properly, focused on him. I have always felt that desolation, that hell itself, is most powerfully expressed in an uninhabited natural landscape at its bleakest.
That the boys stands there “for hours” is a curious detail and recalls an exchange Hecht once had with W. H. Auden on Ischia. Thekla Clark, who visited Hecht there in 1951, remembers “Wystan’s comment to Tony that he should wean himself away from Yeats.” Certain of Yeats’s vagaries irritated Auden: “How can anyone say ‘I have watched for an hour’? Poetry must be accurate.” In Auden’s terms, then, the boy standing there “for hours” would seem an irresponsible, glozing hyperbole, until one understands how an image may root itself in the psyche, reasserting itself, unbidden, and ever-present. Hecht recognizes the persistence of such memories in “Death the Whore,” describing that
At the back of your mind as of something almost grasped
But tauntingly and cunningly evasive.
Hecht unpacks “hours” for Hoy: “My therapist had a lot of theories about [‘A Hill’]. Anyway, when you ask, ‘why would a boy stand for hours in front of a scene of great bitterness,’ the answer is, of course, that he does not do so willingly; he is compelled to. And he is compelled to because no one comes to take him away from all this bitterness.” A similar temporal shift, as an expression of survivor’s guilt, comes at the end of “ ‘More Light! More Light!,’ ” as a man, shot by the Nazis, bleeds to death:
No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.
Once lodged, the trauma is, in an emotional sense, present not just for hours but for weeks or years. McClatchy explains how childhood and the war become linked in Hecht’s poems:
We know from other poems that this scene strangely duplicates scenes described from Hecht’s childhood, where we ﬁnd the lonely boy staring blankly out of the window, or standing paralyzed in front of a hill in winter. In other words, his wartime memories—of sickening fear or helplessness—serve to focus earlier, deeper memories [of childhood], and the way they each recall and reinforce the other is part of the force of a Hecht poem.
This “sickening fear or helplessness” registers directly in Hecht’s poems about the war: we are shown a young boy hauled off to a concentration camp; a soldier with the top of his head sheared off; two Jews buried alive by a Pole, who is then shot; a father powerless to save his children from the camps; and another father who nearly sacrifices his son to protect the family bicycle from capture by a German rifleman. But frequently Hecht chooses indirection, encoding traumatic memory into his descriptions of landscape, as in the trees like “old ironwork gathered for scrap/ Outside a factory wall” accompanied by the report of a rifle.
Hecht often employed what John Ruskin, in Modern Painters, termed the pathetic fallacy—the method by which landscape is perceived under the “influence of emotion.” Hecht, in his essay “The Pathetic Fallacy” from Obbligati, takes, as an example of this, one of his most beloved passages from Shakespeare (which he quoted in letters home from the war, as well as in his telling essay):
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Also in his essay, Hecht writes, “The very act of description is in some degree metaphoric, and when Socrates tries to say what the Good is, the nearest he can come is to say it is like Light”—a metaphor that Hecht frequently employed himself.
Here are four brief excerpts in which Hecht uses the pathetic fallacy to embed, through carefully chosen, loaded diction, trauma in the landscape. In his autobiographical “Apprehensions,” a child looks out the window of a Lexington Avenue apartment building and sees:
the sky seemed to be taking on
An ashy blankness, behind which there lay
Tonalities of lilac and dusty rose
Tarnishing now to something more than dusk,
Crepuscular and funerary greys . . .
The scene is glimpsed through a wrought-iron window guard, like a prisoner looking out between the bars. Another bleak sky and iron railing finds its way into the long poem “The Venetian Vespers”:
the sight, on a gray morning,
Beneath the crossbar of an iron railing
Painted a glossy black, of six waterdrops
Slung in suspension, sucking into themselves,
As if it were some morbid nourishment,
The sagging blackness of the rail itself,
But edged with brilliant fingernails of chrome
In which the world was wonderfully disfigured
Like faces seen in spoons, like mirrorings
In the fine spawn, the roe of air bubbles,
That tiny silver wampum along the stems,
Yellowed and magnified, of aging flowers
Caught in the lens of stale water and glass
In the upstairs room when somebody had died.
Disfigurement, decay, and death mark the exquisite scene. Then, there is this, from “Birdwatchers of America”:
But in our part of the country a false dusk
Lingers for hours; it steams
From the soaked hay, wades in the cloudy woods,
Engendering other dreams.
Formless and soft beyond the fence it broods
Or rises as a faint and rotten musk
Out of a broken stalk.
There are some things of which we seldom talk . . .
The dusk, which is “false,” is beyond a fence. The vegetation is rotten and broken, and there are certain things that are never spoken of. Hecht tells Hoy that “There is much about [the war] that I have never spoken about, and never will.” And, finally, “Death the Whore” introduces the ghost of a former lover, who rises as a wisp of smoke in the speaker’s consciousness:
Some thin gray smoke twists up against a sky
Of German silver in the sullen dusk
From a small chimney among leafless trees.
The paths are empty, the weeds bent and dead;
Winter has taken hold. And what, my dear,
Does this remind you of? You are surprised
By the familiar manner, the easy, sure
Intimacy of my address. You wonder
Whose curious voice is this? Why should that scene
Seem distantly familiar? Did something happen
Back in my youth on a deserted path
Late on some unremembered afternoon?
And now you’ll feel at times a fretful nagging
At the back of your mind as of something almost grasped
But tauntingly and cunningly evasive.
It may go on for months, perhaps for years.
Why choose to make the sky the color of German silver, if not to bring to mind smoke from the crematoria? Another winter scene: the flora, again, are bent and dead. The scene appears out of dimly recalled trauma, a nagging that goes on for months or years.
In spring 1947, Hecht published two of his first poems, in the Kenyon Review. One was the Hardyesque “Once Removed,” which, like Hardy’s “Neutral Tones,” takes the emotional temperature of landscape; the other is “A Friend Killed in the War,” which uses natural imagery to illustrate graphic violence. The poem ends with the death of a soldier, whose “flesh opened like a peony,/ Red at the heart, white petals furling out.”
It took Hecht some time to find ways to write about the war; he disparaged his earliest attempts, which could be dreamlike and poeticizing. His most accomplished war poems deal with the moral compromise and helplessness associated with combat and the Holocaust. But even when he’s not writing directly about the war, the scenes of trauma insinuate themselves in the imagery. The gray, ash, iron, German silver, woods, and fence in the passages above were ways for him to cue the upset of his war experience without invoking it directly. Increasingly, it was by indirections that Hecht found directions out. Direct experience of trauma is “avoided”—either for aesthetic or psychological reasons. Through the pathetic fallacy, Hecht could, as Yvor Winters said of Hardy, “describe the landscape and imply the situation.”
“The Book of Yolek,” one of his most well-known poems of the Holocaust, is haunted by a society that would carry out the de jure execution of millions. Hecht takes as epigraph a line from the Gospel of St. John in Martin Luther’s translation:
Wir haben Ein Gesetz,
Und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben.
Hecht translated this as: “We have a law. And by that law he must die.” It is the answer given by the Pharisees to Pontius Pilate. The quotation echoes the state-sanctioned genocide of the Jews during the Holocaust, and he chose Martin Luther’s translation of John’s Gospel deliberately. Hecht was thinking of Luther’s violent anti-Semitism and his assertion, in On the Jews and Their Lies, that
we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them.
Here Hecht recalls the “blood libel,” which he expands on at length as the key for unlocking The Merchant of Venice, in his long essay on the subject in Obbligati. A great admirer of Bach’s music, it’s likely that Hecht first came upon the passage in the libretto to Bach’s St. John Passion, which sets Luther’s translation—yet another example of how the highest achievements of European culture, and German culture in particular, contained the roots that would blossom under the Third Reich into the horrors of the 1940s.
The poem ends:
Whether on a silent, solitary walk
Or among crowds, far off or safe at home,
You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.
Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.
“No one else knows where the mind wanders to,” he reflects at one point in the sestina, in which camp doubles as a summer camp from childhood and a concentration camp. The speaker’s mind is impelled to a summer day in 1942 and a Home for Jewish Children, who are being rounded up for transportation to the death camps: “How often you have thought about that camp,/ As though in some strange way you were driven to.” Hecht doesn’t write that “No one knows where the mind wanders to” but, rather, no one else knows. This sense of aloneness, of no one understanding or sharing this trauma, is consonant with the isolation experienced by many veterans. The other phrase that jumps out is “as though you were driven to.” The agency lies not with the speaker, but beyond the speaker, as if it were by the power of the memory itself. Yolek may walk into the middle of daily life at any moment. One must set a place for him, as for Elijah.
A common “functional difficulty” of ptsd is that it often disrupts relationships with loved ones, either through sudden irritation and violent outbursts or through an emotional numbness that imposes a protective wall around the sufferer. A sense of self-recrimination and worthlessness is also common, according to Dr. Weissman:
Oftentimes, people feel betrayed by the injury to their moral being. They were put in a situation where they have to betray their own moral code, or they feel betrayed by their superiors who put them there to do this.
This sense of moral compromise fosters the feeling that one is not worthy of love: “I’m not worthy and you’re not safe. I’m not capable of protecting you, and I can’t trust anybody.” This anxiety figures in “Going the Rounds: A Sort of Love Poem,” in which the speaker looks down on a “moralized landscape” (another aspect of the pathetic fallacy):
High on the house are nailed
Banners of pride and fear,
And that small wood to the west, the girls I have failed.
It is, on the whole, rather glum:
The cyclone fence, the tar-stained railroad ties,
With, now and again, surprising the viewer, some
Garden of selflessness or effort. And, as I must,
I acknowledge on this high rise
The ancient metaphysical distrust.
But candor is not enough,
Nor is it enough to say that I don’t deserve
Your gentle, dazzling love, or to be in love.
Hecht’s deeply unhappy first marriage ended in divorce in 1961. Much has been written about the salvific effect of Hecht’s second marriage to Helen D’Alessandro, through whom Hecht, quoting Shakespeare, wrote that he “Receiv’d a second life.” For anyone who knew Hecht, this was patently so: theirs was a close and happy marriage. Hecht’s sense of near-wonder at this miraculous turn in his life is captured in poems such as “Peripeteia” and “A Birthday Poem.” The marriage saved him from long years of anguish at the hands of personal demons. In the latter poem, Hecht describes a childhood photo of Helen at four years old. Born on June 22, she is outdoors in fair weather, clad in a bathing suit and admiring her new red sneakers, “looking down at them with a smile/ of pride and admiration, half/ Wonder and half joy . . .”:
The picture is black and white, mere light and shade.
Even the sneakers’ red
Has washed away in acids. A voice is spent,
Echoing down the ages in my head:
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
O my most dear, I know the live imprint
Of that smile of gratitude,
Know it more perfectly than any book.
It brims upon the world, a mood
Of love, a mode of gladness without stint.
O that I may be worthy of that look.
Such a relationship can, Dr. Weissman explains, repair the breakdown of trust and the deep suspicion that many trauma victims live with. This, I take it, is what Hecht means by “a second life,” and his desire to be worthy of a look, which “brims upon the world” with love and gladness, became the peripety in his life’s drama. Like a late Romance of Shakespeare’s, the horror and loss of Hecht’s early acts are redeemed, after an arduous journey by the possibility of renewed love.