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Weekly Poem: Jennifer Michael Hecht riffs off iconic poems

In her new collection, “Who Said,” Jennifer Michael Hecht “comments on,” “ventriloquizes,” or “meaningfully transliterates” iconic poems throughout history. She has many terms for her work based off some of her favorite verse.

“The poems that I chose were guided by poems that I love, but also poems that work, that I was able to get a poem out of that was moving and memorable,” Hecht told Art Beat. “I could open them up as a way of looking around myself and seeing what came out of myself by engaging with these poems that mean so much to me.”

In her book, Hecht is in conversation with a wide variety of poems, from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” to the beginning of Dante’s “Inferno” and John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn.” In one poem, Hecht creates a mash-up of the Declaration of Independence and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…”). In another, she responds to a Nirvana song.

“[Emily] Dickinson makes two appearances. I couldn’t keep her out — she just kept singing songs in my head.”

Her “Lady Look-Alike Lazarized” is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”

“We translate poems from other languages every couple of generations just to keep the language fresh, but of course we don’t do that in our own language,” said Hecht. “It’s fun … to liven these things up again.”

Listen to Jennifer Michael Hecht read “Lady Look-Alike Lazarized” from her new collection, “Who Said.”

“Lady Look-Alike Lazarized”

It was any of many years ago
in this half townhouse, with this tree,
that a woman who lived whom I don’t know,
in a photo you can see. She baked bread,
ate with two fat men,
and her picture looks like me.

I was a child and she was a child
then neither again would be
she in nineteen thirteen
me in two-zero one-three.
And we loved with a love that was more
than a love, at the heads of our centuries.
Let me see less than she’ll see
because I know more than she
and, even from here, it near blinded me.

And with virtue and reason, long ago,
in this picture that looks like me,
a bug blew out of a cough one night,
chilling the woman who looks like me;
so her muscled kinsman came
and took her away from our tree
to bake no more bread for fat men
and escape brutality.
Yes, a wind blew out of a cloud
one night chilling and killing
who looks like me.

Microbes, heartache, and wars
give little way to reason nor pause
at the soaring wrought-iron gate
of Brooklyn, nor at the doors of state.
She was here and in time died,
well before I arrived here or anywhere.

But our love, she for her men, I for my
small and tall friends, is stronger by far
than the love of those younger or richer
than we, and who would be wiser than we?
And neither the redbreasts in heaven above
nor the flounder down under the sea
can ever quite sever my sight from the sight
of the woman who looks like me.

For the moon rarely beams without bringing
dark dreams of the woman who looks like me;
and the stars never rise but I feel my tight eyes
on a dark dream who looks like me. And so,
all nighttime, I lie down by the side of my
searching self and my self that hides. With a
photo from nineteen hundred one-three,
of a woman who looks a lot like me.

Even though the Hecht knew by heart the poems she chose, she still had room to grow her relationship to the works.

“Writing into a poem that you’ve always had certain feelings about, you’re going to get to know it better and in a new way as you are trying to speak to it and really test where it makes its arguments and where it’s going to take you,” Hecht said. “In some poems, what i really learned more is the rhythm of them and the way that rhyme worked and the way that it’s pleasurable when you put it in the vernacular.”

At the back of the book, the poet included a series of cryptograms. Each cryptogram, when solved, reveals the original verse that Hect is “speaking to” in her poetry. While most people who know poetry will recognize the origins, Hecht wanted to invite people to interact with the text.

“There’s a way in which poetry is this decipherable system, but it’s always going to be so fantastic. Juxtaposing something that is solvable and that you can unravel and that your knowledge goes in to it — the more you know about these poems, the more you’re going to be expecting poems to show up in the cryptogram answers.”

Hecht’s variations on iconic poems, which in the end make up about half of “Who Said,” are not meant to offend long-time lovers of the original works. The first poem of the collection, not even listed in the table of contents, is aptly called “Key,” and functions as just that for her readers.

“‘For people who’ve been around before/I’m offering humbly a little bit more’ — I’m saying I’m not trying to take this over, but I am inviting us to play with it in this way,” said Hecht. “I tell my secrets in the book as I always do with my poetry. There is narrative and there is biography and there is my own particular, personal experiences.”

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