Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Who Said is a declarative, an interrogation for the reader. It is, at once, about which author’s ghost she is stirring, but also asks the question, “Who told you this? Who made you believe this? Who says?” In a way, it’s about authority on two levels—who wrote this original piece, but also acts as a challenge—who demands that you feel this way.
This is done in concert in the closing poem, “The Thesis Is That There Was a Beginning,” which is a layered piece, folding back and winding through, giving us several narratives: the poet telling the reader of a commission, the poet telling of the art installation, the poet utilizing the Bible as source. Who is commanding the poet to make this poem? Does it belong to her? She writes, “The viewer tells the seven screens / when to whirl words by, and when to stop, / but hasn’t any control over the sentence.” She is both passive and active participant.
Jennifer Michael Hecht’s collection opens with an invitation, an almost-sonnet—fourteen lines, rhymed couplets, syllabics near-ten—that greatly resembles a Puckish stage managing:
Some half the poems in this book
from an iconic work a way was took
and as when obeying the rules of the dead
you’re right to ask yourself, Who Said?
And thus, in a poem called “Key,” which is bookended with a series of cryptograms, begins the romp that is Who Said. The puzzles start a little easy—we have “Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” followed by a poem heavy with dashes followed by a poem whose first line is “Spider, spider, spinning tight” followed by a pair of odes.
These poems remind me of so many things at once: a fabled literary gathering with dinner party games, my English professor father’s habit of either responding in conversation with canonical poetry or showtunes, a delightful quiz show only nerds like us would pleasure in. There is nostalgia in this book—of early undergraduate days taking the survey courses, in dinners with my father, in attending summer Shakespeare festivals. We all converge here, unashamed in the deliciousness of homage and extension. Take this sampling:
Where were you last Thursday?
I dined with rhyme. (We drank
wine, we liked it fine, us. We ate
fish. It was delicious.)
What pleasure in that little pattern! It isn’t the who-said-it-ness of this particular ditty but the way in which it dances in a Dr. Seussian manner.
More pleasure in the silliness of adaptation comes in “Backyard Scene, or Fragment of a Vision”: “But oh! my deprived romanticism which ranted / down Cobble Hill in thwarted predawn hunger. / A sandwich place! as whole yet unresponsive / as e’er beneath a waning moon”. But oh! A sandwich place!
Other poems that harken back to classics play with our sense of humor: you’ll likely recognize the villanelle being rewritten in the line, “Never the news, always the caster.” “Newborn Time,” which described a period of time all too familiar to this mama-reviewer, played with pattern in opening, “Now I know the round clock / has a dark side like the moon.” And she continues such contemporary allusions: Lara Croft, Burger King, Wall Street, Doctor Who, “Smells like Every Grief I Meet” cannot be read without that gravelly linger: “Hello, hello, hello, how low?” and “O. Poetry. I want to trust / and thus presume. / I want hope / in a hat / to fly in / on her broom.”
There’s a fantastic attitude to the voice in these poems—a brassiness and up-front-ed-ness that is admirable. In the poem “Penelope, weaving,” she begins, “What did you think I was doing / all that time, while monks are raking a hoe / across the earth’s horizon, making and unmaking / harvest blooms?”
A confession: sadly, I thought, in solving one cryptogram, all the letters in all the puzzles would be consistent. A word to those attempting these pieces, which was likened to an excellent way to pass the time on an airplane—each puzzle has its own jangled alphabet (but perhaps you knew that already). My method of cracking the code was the figure out which quoted jumble was the title (usually the one not connected to the asterisked original author-name) and count the letters, comparing it to options in the table of contents. (Also maybe don’t use pen.)
There’s also an incredibly serious and hopeful side to these poems. They aren’t simply a set of romps, a dallying in the adaptation. You see, within a year’s time of publishing Who Said, Hecht also published a very important book on a serious subject titled Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. Her poems reveal this kind of thesis, and in a direct manner: “No Hemlock Rock” starts: “Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. / Don’t. Eat a doughtnut, be a blown nut.” Here, the declaration marries the absurd, likening the act of suicide to varying and wild possibility—do all these wondered things instead. Even more, this poem continues on, reminding the suicide of outside ripples: “Poison yourself, it poisons the well; / shoot yourself, it cracks the biodome.” Another poem: “The only way to stop it would be to kill / yourself, so don’t. Just stay / and hope for more kisses, even sex.” This poem, “Drummond’s ‘Don’t Kill Yourself’” ends in an all-are-welcome, “Don’t kill yourself. / Come over and drink coffee / or beer with us and tell us.” and “So pity away, / ye normal, and freaks come sit by me.” It’s enough to want to move your plastic tray in the lunchroom. “No Hemlock Rock” contains more of this comradeship: “She continues, “Stay. Thank / you for staying. Please stay. You / are my hero for staying. I know / about it, and am grateful you stay.” Another poem titled “Steady, Steady” closes, “Who wants yet another world? / It’s enough already.”
Even the sideshow is an opportunity to show transformation—in “Circus Pantoum,” the sawdust being swept away becomes “sequins and confetti on a rag mop.” Here we have glitter mixed with the mundane, shown how we can reinterpret the world at will.
Socrates too gets an alternate ending, where bees infest the prison, Socrates escapes, and is allowed to retire in the orchards with his wife. Hecht wants us to see we can survive difficult experiences: in “Leopard Goes through Hell Villanelle,” the poem examines sobriety, and the following poem, “Gender Bender,” the possibility of molestation is countered with an opposite experience, and closes with triumph: “If you see a girl dressed to say No one tells me / what to do, you know someone once told her what to do.” A later poem, “Down the Stairs and out the Door” gives a shifted view on a stereotype:
On television raunch-mouthed adolescent
men, when they get a daughter, won’t let
anyone talk that way around her. A thug,
you’d say, a dees dem dohs, yet he
knows if you curse a lot to a little girl,
calling her grandma a cunt for instance,
she grows up knowing herself only
as a worthless fissure in the universe
The poem ends, “It happened. It wasn’t my fault. It’s over.”
Indeed, it’s these lines that beckon the reader too—perhaps not always the dinner party guessing game, but instead, the post-recovery, post-treatment, come-sit-with-me-too. What a wide world Hecht takes in with this collection—Who Said isn’t just about which author is she riffing against but also: Who told you you had to be this way? Here’s a second look behind the curtain.