May 2002

Amy Holman


Amy Holman is a poet and prose writer and the Director of the Literary Horizons program at Poets & Writers. She has a collecion of poems, Vanishing Twin, being published this spring by Mitki/Mitki Press.
The Next Ancient World
by Jennifer Michael Hecht
Tupelo Press, 2001

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It's hard to imagine being gone, and worse, obsolete, lost, misunderstood. But, it's inevitable that our civilization will be replaced and we become the subject of anthropologists and historians. In a wild, imaginative attempt to clarify who we were, what we thought at precise moments, and what we made of our place in history, Jennifer Michael Hecht has composed her first collection of poems, The Next Ancient World, as "a sort of advice book" to our successors and for our benefit.

There's so much here for the reader—an armchair archaeologist—to discover and connect. We must have a story to tell. All good things must come to an end. We will survive. Hecht's ideas and images accumulate and catch our notice, subtly replaying and challenging themselves, and she delivers them with a mixture of reassurance and anxiety—typical of someone who teaches undergraduates about the ancient world while living in the urban modern. Meanwhile, her own love life offers up an ending that in the poems "September" and "Felonies," and in the stray metaphors of pyramid graves, flags flying at half-mast, and imperfect humanity trapped in formaldehyde, seems final, destroyed. Yet, she is everywhere witty, conversational, and smart and once in awhile, a little outrageous, as in "Prologue," one of the many times architecture becomes physical: "we also have to admit that the important parts are the parts/that we remember in the lower parts of our bodies,/the way the seat of your pants knows something about the acropolis."

Age-old struggles are put into new perspective in this advice book while also pointing out the obvious flaws in how human nature has been portrayed. Hecht reinvigorates the fall from grace in "History" by making Eve's action both feminist and heartbreaking, giving to herself what was not provided:

Even Eve, the only soul in all of time
to never have to wait for love,
must have leaned some sleepless nights
alone against the garden wall
and wailed, cold, stupefied, and wild
and wished to trade in all of Eden
to have but been a child.

In fact, I gather that is why she leapt and fell from grace,
that she might have a story of herself to tell
in some other place.

Since the book itself is the story to tell in some other place, Hecht is often writing about the fall of civilization, as in "Waiting to Happen," which juxtaposes hope and doom, the pleasures of boredom to the absence of life. But if a poet writes about the end of the world with the certainty of an historian, she might well crash into it.

The Next Ancient World won the 2000 Judge's Prize for Poetry at Tupelo Press and heads the publisher's first book list. Due in spring of the new millennium, the book actually arrived later on, in September, 2001. In "Convince Him," a great poem about father-son rivalry with Alexander The Great as a frustrating example of accomplishment, we are presented with a wild passage both shockingly familiar and strangely comforting:

...Out there, these days, young conquering
ghosts still run naked along the taxicabs to show

the passengers that they love them; that they

will not be abandoned if it all comes down. Even now
there is the danger that it may yet all come down.

Despite our luck, there is a chance

that some soon campaign will be disastrous
and our own city sacked: walls kneeling and windows

popping out of their International Style frames,

the Lever house and the Seagram building clattering,
while subways threaten to plow up

through the earth like sea monsters

The poems are large and tiny, inquiries and anecdotes that cumulatively shatter into fragments of history, religion, myth, popular culture, social issues and personal experience to be pieced together as a portrait. Even Blake pads through the book from "The Innocent" to" Tiger Story" to the closing "Swamp Thing" where Hecht captures the paradox of our survival, perfectly:

Apparently you've got to be
vulnerable if you want
anything to happen,
and on the other side of it
you've got to be unfathomably
strong in order to get by.
In order to get through the attacks
and rejections occasioned
by vulnerability you've got to
be almost invulnerably
strong. It's a difficult road map
to fold, friends...

We are formed on before and after, phases and cycles, and thrive on our ability to put things in perspective so we can live our lives fully before we die, and give the next world a turn at it. "But they didn't fill/the desert with pyramids./They just built some. Some./They're not still out there,/ building them now. Everyone,/everywhere, gets up and goes home." ("On the Strength of All Conviction and Stamina of Love") It's your turn to explore The Next Ancient World. But for our successors, Tupelo Press may want to consider that acid-free paper is not enough, and put out an edition in tablet stone.




Amy Holman: Book Review
Copyright © 2002 The Cortland Review Issue 20The Cortland Review