This beautiful prose collection strikes very deep notes. Rachel Hadas, known for her formal dexterity and intelligence, demonstrates here a remarkable fluency in moving from the disarmingly personal to the perceptively literary-critical, from the daily round to the ancient world, and from heartbreak to wonderment. Poetry is alive in her, as is a calm, humane attentiveness to the normalcy of grief and the possibilities of
In Talking to The Dead, Rachel Hadas’ extraordinary new collection of essays, the author’s voice comes through as that of a lifelong friend: compassionate, intelligent, completely understanding, often wickedly funny. A poet and a classicist, Hadas’ acute perceptions are informed by a life of meticulous scholarship and deepened by personal experience. Here, among other explorations, she looks to Lucretius for an understanding of the devastation of Hurricane Irene, and seeks communion with her long-dead father, classical scholar Moses Hadas, “the demanding ghost.” She visits her husband George, dying of early Alzheimer’s disease in a residential facility, and sees him as separate from the world in the way of a nun who has “taken a veil.” There is no veil for Rachel Hadas. Her vision is mercilessly, courageously clear and her writing, again in this book, is piercingly beautiful.
As I read Talking to the Dead, I felt I was engaged in a wide-ranging, personal, pleasurable, and erudite conversation with Rachel Hadas herself. She is deft, as few others are, at integrating her deep scholarship with a compassionate understanding of the human and the humorous everyday, and as she turns her sharp eye, clear intelligence, and ready wit on subjects as various as Dante and dreams, Homer and Plath, snakes and centaurs, illness and invisibility, she never fails to surprise, stimulate, and satisfy both heart and mind.
Rachel Hadas not only speaks to her dead here, the public dead of literature, the private dead of family and friends (spheres that sometimes overlap), but listens to them, intently and affectionately. These are conversations, and the dead are as apt to pipe up as to be addressed, their own voices chiming in about poetry, criticism, teaching, and time. No one writes better than Hadas about what reading does, what reading is—an attic space between worlds, through which all worlds are accessible. In a phrase from Virgil that shows up again and again (a revenant itself) in these pages—quisque suos patimur manes—Hadas reminds us that we all have our own ghosts to bear. That said, we don’t have to bear the past alone. Reading (and writing) is solitude, but also, paradoxically, companionship. And it is hard to imagine a better companion, erudite, unpretentious, relentlessly curious, funny, sharp, clear-eyed, always making unlikely but illuminating connections, than Hadas, on this enriching journey among the humane and literate shades.
A. E. Stallings
In this exploration of past and present, dream life and memory, Rachel Hadas illuminates the nature of poetry, family, love and friendship. Talking to the Dead demonstrates that a writer’s life is inseparable from the life of her mind. We are fortunate indeed to have this collection of essays, memoirs, and entertainments from one of our best poets.
The many voices in Rachel Hadas’ Talking to the Dead include Dante, Homer, Cavafy, Plath, her father Moses Hadas, her late husband the composer George Edwards, the poet Alan Ansen, and neighbors in Vermont and Greece, to name only some of the appearances and geographies in these vividly engaged conversations with the not-so-dead of Hadas’ cosmology. Brocades of the literary and lived speak for the rewards of a lifetime in letters. Whether the conversation is with Eliot as he argues with Milton’s Lycidas, or her imaginings of Charles Dickens’ reaction to a Semiotics course, a fantastic round table on the role of the humanities, we are ever in the presence of Hadas’ gifts for showing us how “the words are there” to feed, guide, and teach us “in the realm of the invisible” where our ghosts are more alive than absent.
Talking to the Dead is the best sort of criticism; a book that combines deep intellect and knowledge with genuine emotional power. Like Rachel Hadas’s earlier memoir, Strange Relation, Talking to the Dead is a work of urgent scholarship, where the stakes are high, aesthetic questions matter, antiquity is relevant, and poetry provides both beauty and solace in individual lives.
Rachel Hadas’s numerous books include a memoir, Strange Relation, (2011) and eleven books of poetry, most recently The Golden Road (2012). A new book of poems, Questions in the Vestibule, is forthcoming in 2016. She has also translated tragedies by Euripides and Seneca, coedited an anthology of Greek poetry in translation from Homer to the present, and edited an anthology of work by poets in a workshop she initiated at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. A frequent reviewer and columnist for the Times Literary Supplement, Hadas lives in New York City with her husband and collaborator, artist Shalom Gorewitz. She is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark.