The Feast of Stephen

By Anthony Hecht 1923–2004 Anthony Hecht
I

The coltish horseplay of the locker room,
Moist with the steam of the tiled shower stalls,   
With shameless blends of civet, musk and sweat,   
Loud with the cap-gun snapping of wet towels   
Under the steel-ribbed cages of bare bulbs,   
In some such setting of thick basement pipes   
And janitorial realities
Boys for the first time frankly eye each other,   
Inspect each others’ bodies at close range,   
And what they see is not so much another   
As a strange, possible version of themselves,   
And all the sparring dance, adrenal life,   
Tense, jubilant nimbleness, is but a vague,   
Busy, unfocused ballet of self-love.


II

If the heart has its reasons, perhaps the body   
Has its own lumbering sort of carnal spirit,   
Felt in the tingling bruises of collision,   
And known to captains as esprit de corps.
What is this brisk fraternity of timing,   
Pivot and lobbing arc, or indirection,   
Mens sana in men’s sauna, in the flush
Of health and toilets, private and corporal glee,   
These fleet caroms, plies and genuflections
Before the salmon-leap, the leaping fountain
All sheathed in glistening light, flexed and alert?   
From the vast echo-chamber of the gym,
Among the stumbled shouts and shrill of whistles,   
The bounced basketball sound of a leather whip.


III

Think of those barren places where men gather   
To act in the terrible name of rectitude,   
Of acned shame, punk’s pride, muscle or turf,   
The bully’s thin superiority.
Think of the Sturm-Abteilungs Kommandant
Who loves Beethoven and collects Degas,
Or the blond boys in jeans whose narrowed eyes   
Are focussed by some hard and smothered lust,   
Who lounge in a studied mimicry of ease,   
Flick their live butts into the standing weeds,   
And comb their hair in the mirror of cracked windows
Of an abandoned warehouse where they keep   
In darkened readiness for their occasion   
The rope, the chains, handcuffs and gasoline.


IV

Out in the rippled heat of a neighbor’s field,
In the kilowatts of noon, they’ve got one cornered.   
The bugs are jumping, and the burly youths   
Strip to the waist for the hot work ahead.   
They go to arm themselves at the dry-stone wall,   
Having flung down their wet and salty garments   
At the feet of a young man whose name is Saul.   
He watches sharply these superbly tanned   
Figures with a swimmer’s chest and shoulders,   
A miler’s thighs, with their self-conscious grace,   
And in between their sleek, converging bodies,   
Brilliantly oiled and burnished by the sun,   
He catches a brief glimpse of bloodied hair   
And hears an unintelligible prayer.

Anthony Hecht, “The Feast of Stephen” from Collected Earlier Poems. Copyright © 1990 by Anthony Hecht. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Source: Collected Earlier Poems (1990)

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Poet Anthony Hecht 1923–2004

Subjects Gender & Sexuality, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Sonnet

 Anthony  Hecht

Biography

One of the leading voices of his generation, Anthony Hecht’s poetry is known for its masterful use of traditional forms and linguistic control. Extraordinarily erudite, Hecht’s verse often features allusions to French literature, Greek myth and tragedy, and English poets and poetry stretching from Wallace Stevens to John Donne. Hecht, who died in 2004, was often described as a “traditionalist.” George P. Elliott contended in the . . .

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SUBJECT Gender & Sexuality, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Sonnet

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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