If you are brilliant poet and translator, knighted by the King of Spain, does it matter that you screwed up your relationship with your kids? If you screwed up your relationship with your kids, does it matter that you are a brilliant poet and translator, knighted by the King of Spain?
Those are some of the questions raised by a remarkable documentary, now playing on HBO, “First Cousin, Once Removed.” The film follows distinguished poet, professor and translator Edwin Honig over four years as he gradually loses his memory to Alzheimer’s. Honig describes these incremental losses with a poet’s eloquence. In one scene, the filmmaker, his cousin Alan Berliner, asks if he recalls playing with Berliner’s son earlier in the day. Honig looks at him and replies, “I have no night of what I knew in the morning.” Does he remember at what University he taught? “It begins with ‘B’,” Berliner hints. “The University of Blah Blah,” Honig jokes. (It was Brown.)
At another point Berliner shows him some film taken of Honig before his memory failed. In it he self-assuredly reels off his credentials to the camera: Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Brown, founder of the writing program, translator of Cervantes, Federico Garcia Lorca and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, author of many works of poetry. And: “Oh yes, I had a Guggenheim.” Watching this recital, the older, now debilitated Honig says, “I’m not impressed.”
Alan Berliner received Honig’s permission to make the film while the poet was still lucid. Even so, filming the dying of his intellectual light might seem an act of unkindness. But I couldn’t help thinking that as Honig’s memory faded, so did his pronounced cruel streak. He seemed nicer, gentler. I knew Edwin Honig during the time he taught at Brown – his former wife Margot was my friend. She is interviewed in the film, as are the two sons they adopted together, now grown and mostly estranged from their father. With reason. Margot tells the story of the time she returned home to find their son Jeremy weeping because Edwin had torn up all his drawings. “What happened to make daddy get so angry?” she asks. “I don’t know. I think I spilled my milk.”
The sons, Jeremy and Daniel, describe a father who was harsh and remote, a virtuoso at ridicule. “The qualities that made him a good critic didn’t make him a very good father. He knew how to stab at the heart,” says Jeremy. “I liked literature when I started reading, but he thought anything I ever read was trite. I shouldn’t be reading Orwell; I should be reading Cervantes. I know these names, these books, writers, but they’re like thorns to me. Lorca, Pessoa, Cervantes are all thorns in my side.”
Son Daniel remembers a father who never had a good thing to say about anyone. “As a rule he’d rather be up in his study writing . . . He didn’t know how to control all the demons that he carried around.” “First Cousin” gives these demons their due, describing the traumas of Edwin Honig’s own childhood. When he was 5 his father blamed him for the death of his 3-year-old brother, who was run over by a truck.
Edwin Honig died in 2011 at age 91. When “First Cousin” opened at the New York Film Festival last year, festival director Richard Pena described the scenes with Honig’s sons as “heartbreaking.” “Some people were pretty angry about it,” he told the New York Times, “as they think it really tarnished his image.” To tarnish or not to tarnish? That is often the question when portraying poets’ lives. For myself, the answer may be found in Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue:” Why not say what happened?
Sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped
heightened from life
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?