This book review was first published in Rain Taxi (electronic version), several years ago. The book is still available from XLibris & online vendors. When I was at Brown as an undergrad, Honig was one of my teachers (& friend, and mentor).
A review of work done by a close friend of the reviewer inevitably differs from a more independent response. There are gains & losses, probably mostly losses : nevertheless, when I re-read the poetry excerpts, it's impossible not to hear them again in Honig's wry, modulated voice.
GHOST OF A RENAISSANCE MAN
Time and Again : Poems 1940–1997, by Edwin Honig
XLibris, 2000. 600 pp. $16.
Edwin Honig has a flair for drama. His multidimensional poetry manages a speaking voice with a large, fluent vocabulary, both slangy and erudite. His poems are often staged: a dramatic situation leaps to the fore. Here are the concluding lines of “The Gift”:
Free! Free! The round voice sings,
mad as a bell swinging with joy,
then stops. Quick! Quick! before eyes
fail against the final wall, let him
know what joy is, in his heart –
the stranger’s heart that eagerly
sang out of him, and stopped.
“The Gift”, within the confines of 18 lines, sets up a dream-like encounter between the speaker and “a stranger with a baby face”, sitting naked and smiling in a locked room, in a pool of his own blood. The drama serves a symbolic function: an embodiment of the otherness of inspiration, akin to possession or speaking in tongues. The process of dramatizing brings together many of Honig’s perennial concerns: his fascination with allegory, parable, storytelling; his obsession with the self and its self-delusions (evident in his poetry, and in his translations of Fernando Pessoa); and his immersion in theater proper (his translations of Calderon, his essays on Ben Jonson and the Elizabethans, and his own short plays in prose and verse). Honig’s technique involves setting a scene, suddenly, decisively. Within that scene a voice bubbles forth: the voice of a Brooklynite whose life spanned the 20th century, and which unites the studied stateliness of Prince Hal with the rambunctiousness of Falstaff. In the short poem “Late, Late”, these opposing aspects are muted but subtly present: a restricted, iconic movement combined with an expansive vocabulary.
In the palehaired fields of August
sunlight gravely brushes
poppies, blackeyed daisies,
rusted roses gallivanting
up an old abandoned cellarway
into the open sky.
A peach tree, hunched and mossy,
hard fruit speckled, stiff,
grows near the absent barn.
Red chevrons flashing,
blackbird gangs swell by.
The titmouse follows idly.
Is it their passing darkens
wild mustard, carrot, parsley?
Is it daylight shadows falling?
A first nightstar trembles.
The sickle moon advances
with a special cunning.
“Late, Late” is a concise example of the strain of elegiac mourning which is pervasive in Honig’s writing, and is found in combination with two important counter-tones: a streak of bitter, black humor, and a quieter voice of metaphysical hope. This collection of over 50 years’ work shows particularly clearly how the poet’s muse is framed by death: from the death of his young brother, hit by a truck while the two boys were crossing a street (in the 1920s), to the death of his first wife (in the 1960s), to the sense of political and cultural death (during the Vietnam War era and after), to the lonely confrontation with aging and dying faced by all (in the 1990s). His young wife’s passing triggered a whole range of writing, from brief poems to verse plays, stemming from the myth of Orpheus. This section, from a sequence called “Another Orpheus”, seems especially moving:
We sat in the lamplight’s quiet estimation
of our unwavering unanswered fire, one moment
in our living brimful glass
containing each of us, each as yet untouched,
unbroken, asking, Who
will drink us if we do not drink each other?
And neither of us stirred.
It is a light lingering on a sill
as I lie half-awakened on a summer morning
sunk in the weighted gladness
of my beached body still awash and unreleased
by the dark tide of sleep
till I advance a hand to touch the light and it
withdraws however far I reach and disappears.
Honig sometimes frames his rueful, bittersweet intonation in large, ambitious long poems. Most powerfully in Four Springs (a book-length poem modelled in part on Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal) and Gifts of Light, he expands toward impersonality and objectivity – satirical and social (Four Springs) or a Beethoven-like, metaphysical sublimity (Gifts of Light). The latter poem swells finally into hymn:
Pulsing in the eye and ear
inner to outer being
are gifts bestowed by light
In the intricate tasks of day
the fishing in
and hauling up
of joys and pains
are gifts bestowed by light
In the endless castings
of the fisher’s lines
the slicing of the scalpel
are gifts bestowed by light
all of these and more
are of the gifts
bestowed by light
This massive collection is the testament of a survivor, and a record of 20th-century American poetry. Reading Honig through fifty years, one can trace his early apprenticeships, not only to Stevens, Lowell, MacNeice, and Dylan Thomas, but also to the Spanish modernists and European surrealists. One can follow the deepening of his own idiosyncratic vision and manner, while, at the same time, his precise, consistent mastery of diction flows into looser and more flexible forms. In this process he shares the developments of his generation: yet there are ranges of shaped experience which are complementary to, but different from, those of his peers (for example, Berryman or Lowell). Honig was both more cosmopolitan and more isolated: his translations of Spanish and Portuguese literature are known and performed widely around the world; his deep kinship with a Mediterranean–Moorish–Hebraic past filters into his work in distinctive ways; and his quiet life in provincial Rhode Island tempered his poetry with a plangent, meditative quality. For example, here is the beautiful short poem which concludes the volume:
Hymn to Her
The load you take
is dense, backbreaking
It can be otherwise:
and in full light
the load is slim,
and to the one that
takes it, bracing –
owed to none but
for the life
that lifts awakened.
Note the meticulous, elegant shape of the sentence working against the stanzas, and how right the rhymes are. This lyric by an aging, ailing man sums up a lifetime’s commitment in a hopeful key, and declares it good. Hopefully Edwin Honig’s dramatic presence and inimitable voice will find new readers (and listeners) as the new century unfolds.