Marilyn Hacker, First Cities: Collected Early Poems 1960-1979
Marilyn Hacker, Desesperanto: Poems 1999-2002
On a number of occasions in her earlier work, Marilyn Hacker watched men’s hermetic rituals from a distance, less as an anthropologist with some prospect of arriving at logical deductions about what she was seeing than as an observant tourist in a culture so different from her own as to be almost beyond comprehension. What was left was the physical detail: ‘a naked man / with a wristwatch and a walking-stick / approaches, but will not reach, / two horses’. At clearer moments, she knew what men were up to but, interested though she was in them, she accepted her own exclusion from their milieu. In a sequence of sonnets about Regent’s Park she described sitting among ‘the clucking mums on benches near the swings’, her mind wandering into the nocturnal cruising areas, ‘behind the bushes after hours’, where ‘all sorts of lewd and fascinating things / still happen. But they won’t happen to me’. She knows they happen because she has gay friends; and she seems aware that they would not happen were she there, anthropologically, to observe them. Yet, for all that the present observer must be detached from the watched reality, the absent imaginer need not be. It is sometimes in the latter capacity that Hacker is able to make sense of realities neither experienced nor observed.
Her two main milieux are bohemian New York City and a Paris in which the cosmopolitan has given way to the multicultural: ‘the old men arguing / on benches, in French, in Mandarin, / in Arabic, Yiddish and Portuguese’. Her own trans-Atlantic flaneurship carries echoes of Modernism in the mundane life of the postmodern: ‘I sit in a café / nursing a decaf.’—but with a suppressed yearning for the heyday of absinthe.
She is a marvellous technician—like Adrienne Rich, an admirer of Auden without his clinical detachment. Her collections include, if not crowns, slighter tiaras of sonnets, and sestinas in a modern idiom, sestinas that work. In ‘Morning News’, the shuffling of the end-words ‘bread’, ‘branches’, ‘war’, ‘houses’, kitchen’, ‘was’ and ‘photograph’ results in as particular and detailed a generic poem on civil warfare as you are ever likely to read. At other times, however, facility threatens to teeter over into the facile. For instance, there is a sonnet called ‘July 19, 1979’ which begins as follows:
I’ll write a sonnet just to get in form,
allowing fifteen minutes by the clock
to build gratuitously block by block
Leaving aside the question of how many quatrains it takes to make a sonnet, this is either agreeably relaxed or disagreeably cocky. Even if ars est celare artem, one does not want it to look too easy. Or rather, the thing must look as if it happened, as it were, naturally, but not as if the poet was thinking of something else at the time, as if merely trotting on a treadmill to keep fit. To rhyme with line twelve’s ending, ‘blue eyes’, line fourteen ends ‘I’ve done my exercise’. A sonnet in fifteen minutes? Well, bully for you. If the poem truly is gratuitous, bothering to read it may be a waste of my time.
But Hacker’s technical panache is not, in fact, gratuitous. Her showing off and muscle-flexing, at least back in the 1960s and 70s, had a straightforward political purpose. As she put the case in the poem ‘Introductory Lines’, written in 1978 for the ‘formal poetry’ issue of The Little Magazine:
Poets, and poems, are not apolitical.
Women and other radicals who choose
venerable vessels for subversive use
affirm what Sophomore Survey often fails
to note: God and Anonymous are not white males.
Her own use of ‘venerable vessels’ was, in those days, an intentionally ostentatious demonstration of female skill. Which is not to say that she was trying to shape a specifically gendered poetry; at least as much, she was showing that she could do what was reckoned men’s work a lot better than many of the men who were reckoned good at it.
Of course, that general point has long been accepted by anyone with the slightest purchase on reason; so her skills can now be put to more useful uses. But Hacker is no less politically engaged than she ever was, thank goodness. Any Anglophone poet who wishes to be engaged with public issues still has to cope with the dreadful oppressiveness of that line of Auden’s, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’—a line that fits beautifully into its original context but has been used by quietists ever since as a handy undermining tool, no less effective for the fact that in its handiness it contradicts itself. In Desesperanto, Hacker manages a politicised idiom that seems as if it might achieve something. The collection opens with a piece in memory of June Jordan, the African-American lesbian poet, an ‘Elegy for a Soldier’ that builds to a climax of the naming of other such soldiers whose chief weapon was poetry: Yehuda Amichai, Léopold Senghor, Pablo Neruda, Audre Lorde… The clinching sentiment here, adapting an insight of Primo Levi’s, is: ‘To each nation its Jews, its blacks, its Arabs, / Palestinians, its immigrants, its women. / From each nation, its poets’.
‘An Embittered Elegy’ in memory of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man crucified by homophobes, and Barnett Slepian, the abortionist assassinated by right-to-lifers, turns into a cry of exasperation at the inherited homophobia and anti-feminism of Hacker’s own American students. An adjacent poem, ‘English 182’, evinces similar frustration at student ignorance and the unwillingness of a young, black woman to do the required work on a selection of poems by Audre Lorde. Hacker makes no easy, liberal attempt to justify the closed-mindedness of disadvantaged youth; nor does she do much to ironise her own anger at their reluctance to play ball with academic radicalism. The outcome is an unresolved atmosphere of threat and pessimism. The fact is that, despite her idealism, Hacker seems to keep finding—as when a functioning multicultural neighbourhood in Paris turns nimbyist when a hostel for drug users is proposed: ‘send them to another street—not ours’—that people do not live up to ideal standards.
In her more depressive moods, Hacker is baffled by both grief and pessimism, knowing that although life sometimes gets better it does so only temporarily; and that human societies always revert to barbarism unless we struggle to uphold their better values. In the elegy on June Jordan, Hacker notes that while a blank space has replaced the twin towers of the World Trade Center, ‘Threats keep citizens in line’ and ‘dissent festers unexpressed’. Like so many writers, she is left with the reassurance of the personal. There are always human relationships to fall back on. She expresses this best in the last instruction in her rhapsodic recipe for ‘Jamesian omelettes’, as made for hung-over brunches by gay friends in her youth: ‘Eat it with somebody you’ll remember’.
[This review was first published in PN Review 159 (Sept-Oct 2004), pp.84-85.]