Monday, 1 July 2013

Notes on some Marilyn Hacker Poems

These are some notes done to get my head around some of Marilyn Hacker's wonderful poems.   They were originally done for a talk to friends, a women's poetry reading group, and are posted here mainly in case some of those presented wanted to have a look at some of the later poems below,   which we didn't have time to cover.

My particularly admiration of Hacker's work is the way she anchors things always in the quotidian, and that is always convincing and as real as the huddled bodies and cups of coffee to banter over.   I'm also very interested in the way she often weaves the poem together not by narrative or 'argument'/'point',  but associations which always have a historical and political edge.  She is also able, sometimes to be 'confessional' without being self-centred,  largely I believe because of  this and also because of her way of talking about herself very muchs through the way she thinks of, remembers, writes/talks to,  other people.

Letter to Mimi Khalvati is quotidian in the sense that it deals with ordinary as is life to do with individual lives, places,  meals.   Also in that it is addressed to Mimi Khalvati, drawing some tentative ideas out of their sometimes fleeting relationship across continents.   It begins with the typical letter ‘salutation’, but by leaving out the name, gives fuller force to the otherwise conventional ‘dear’,  in which the person is not dear to us at all.  

Dear, how I hate the overblown diction of
lines for occasions:  festschrifts, like elegies
                making a banal birthday seem to
                signpost a passage to unmapped wasteland,

The first line of the letter proper, distances her from ‘overblown diction’, a feature of all Hacker’s poetry, while still using the rhetorical ‘how I…’, but now the rhetorical is one-to-one.    The dislike of the ceremonial,  is a dislike of the way in which something as banal as a birth can itself be overblown.   Hacker in much of her later poetry is concerned with illness and death, especially death of friends,   and she here distances herself from the way in which overblowing a birthday can draw attention, callously, to the ‘unmapped wasteland’ to which everyone’s succession of birthday’s leads.       The dutiful sending of birthday cars and ‘many happy returns’ renders the birthday banal, by reducing it to a social cliché.    The imagery shifts from a focus on times and dates (birthdays, “occasions” to that of space with “signpost”,  the journey of a life.   The gloomy signpost is inappropriate, she says

when thoughts and smiles are fresh as they’ve ever been
-          at least my brief years given the privilege
of bantering across some table,
words made more fluent by cakes or curries

given the continued vitality (thoughts and smiles are fresh) of MK,  at least in MH’s experience, she says,  ‘my brief years’ giving just the faintest hint of the fragility of life itself as well as indicating the brief years of a friendship, and the friendship again is brought down to the quotidian, not ‘overblown’ with philosophical debate, but ‘bantering across some table’, and  talking over ‘cakes and curries’.

And then in the next stanza

or by the short time left for exchanging them:
train in an hour, espresso in Styrofoam
cups.  Ciao!  I wish. . .  I’ll tell you next time.
Bus to the Eurostar, airport taxi.

the sense of life’s brevity returns with ‘the short time left’,  but encapsulated in a quotidian metaphor of having to move on, catch trains and planes, and so on.   MH is a poet of exile, ill at ease in her own country and its luxury.  These are images of the temporary too.  

The poem now switches from a focus on the writer to the letter-reader, MK.

I’ll never see the light of your memories
(joy can be shared, but losses are separate)
                though we’re a lucky pair of outcasts,
                free to embellish or keep our stories.

She takes up the travel imagery of the planes and trains and focuses on their common, but different, experiences of exile, ‘a lucky pair of outcasts’, lucky because they have middle class comfortable lives at least at a physical level.  This kind of joy they can share, but less so the losses, partly perhaps because loss is a solitary experience, and partly because their losses are different.  MK is an exile from her ‘home’ country, Iran.  She can’t go back;   MH is an outcast in being a radical and a lesbian, who has chosen to live abroad, mainly in France.
They are lucky because ‘free’  and ‘lucky’ in the sense that they live in countries where there is freedom of speech and democracy.  They also have the freedom as to whether to reveal or indeed embellish or to ‘keep’ (mum about) their experiences.    ‘Embellish’ here, I suggest, refers to the act of writing poetry in which there is always a sense of ‘invention of what is’, not (necessarily) exaggeration or ‘spinning’.

Yours, Mimi, silver’s brilliance on velvety
shapes in the no-man’s-land between alphabets
                you were obliged to cross and cross to
                write in the white ink of exiled childhood.

Moving close still to the ‘you’ of the poem,  she uses the imagery of ‘silver’s brilliance’ (not just ‘silver brilliance’ ) on ‘velvety shapes’.  I’m not sure I get this.  Is it just brilliance – or thought, of speech, tone of voice – on something more sensuous?    Needs thinking about.  The general sense of MK’s ‘brilliance’ is clear, but not (to me) the detail.   But clearer (to me) is the way we return now to the geographical imagery (taking up the earlier signposts and wasteland).  Not now a wasteland but a ‘no-man’s-land between alphabets’,  between the culture (and writing system) of Iran, and England.   This focuses on the cultural transitions she was ‘obliged to cross and cross’ in order to write.  The ‘write’ here refers to MK’s education in England, learning to write,  but also becoming a writer in English.  But she writes in ‘the white ink of exiled childhood’.  This is a kind of invisible ink in which the loss and transitions of childhood can’t be seen,  or not directly.   Like the invisible ink used by a spy, the invisible 0ne, the inaudible voice;   they are ‘there’ if we have the insight/means to bring them into vision, as it were.   ‘White Ink’, also is the title of MK’s first collection of poems, the title itself being an allusion a comment by Helen Cixous that women writes are invisible, writing with ‘white ink’ in world of male hegemony

As in conversation ‘one thing leads to another’ by association, and the them of MK’s childhood suggests their own children

Whose children did we talk about, smoking and
sipping red wine (an Indian family
                toasting some milestone near us) in the
                restaurant tucked behind Euston Station?

At first just the question, and the momentary though of the Indian family at a nearby children ‘toasting some milestone’,  perhaps another birthday,  Indians like them ‘exiles’  but well into the quotidian world of London’s Euston.

But she then comes back to their own children, now comparing the two of them.

Two women, poised for middle-aged liberty,
still have our fledgling burdens to anchor us,
                wish they were soaring, independent,
                glad when they ground us with tea and gossip.

both of them middle-aged and ‘poised for…liberty’,   that is having no further responsibility for ‘fledgling burdens’, and indeed wishing the were already free of  them, and yet are brought back to earth,  ‘ground us’ with everyday tea and gossip, hinting at the ambiguity most parents have about being free and being left.   This is another kind of leaving, not exile, and yet not entirely unlike exile from ‘home’.

The poem ends with the imperative, telling MK to ‘think of the friendships lost to geography’,  when people, like children, move away, as MH describes herself in her rushing to catch the plane never quite finishing the conversation, but next time. . . .

Think of the friendships lost to geography,
or lost to language, sex, or its absence. . .  I
                send, crossing fingers, crossing water,
                brighter thoughts, bright Maryam:  happy birthday.

Friendship is what the poem is about and it ends with ways in which it can be ‘lost’.  It can be lost to language both in the sense of losing contact with people speaking other languages, literally or metaphorically in the sense of no longer understanding someone,   or people lost to ‘sex, or its absence’ – someone you live finding another sexual partner, or the sexual communication between you being lost.   She trails into dots, because this has not happened but the act of greeting someone on their birthday is an act of remembering and maintaining a friendship.   But the greeting is also a gesture across separating geography.
                send, crossing fingers, crossing water,

and also positive,  ‘bright thoughts’   empathising with ‘bright Maryam’s own ‘brilliance’.  The crossing fingers are a hope that the friendship does continue, that her luck  (‘lucky exiles’) holds.  MH surely has in mind also, that the name ‘Maryam’ (shortened to ‘Mimi’) means ‘star’ of the sea, a brilliance associated with distances.

So the poem perhaps like all poems is a greeting and a wish for sharing and oneness among exiles, a closeness among distances.

MH is not one of those poets who sends you makes obscure allusions to make the very well read feel the more included in her audience,  and sends the rest of us to the dictionary of mythology, or Google.  If there are slightly hidden allusions they are not  crucial to our reading of the poem, though – as in the allusions I (happen to have) picked out, they enrich the work.

"Absent, I come to the home of the absent,"

wrote the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, so admired by MH.   And to me this poem speaks as much as absence as anything else.

The poem is quotidian in ‘tone’ also. And MK achieves this not be avoiding metre but by embracing it.   The poem uses a syllabic metre.

Dear, how I hate the overblown diction of                                              11 syllables
lines for occasions:  festschrifts, like elegies                                            11
                making a banal birthday seem to                                                9
                signpost a passage to unmapped wasteland,                          10

Each line ends on an unstressed syllable, which assists with the ‘run on’ lines making every stanza but one a single sentence.    This is a little like so-called ‘sapphics’, based on the metre used by the Green poet, Sappho.  But in her stanza the last two lines were slightly different having 11 and 5 syllables.  

Hacker does use the full Sapphic stanza in A Braid of Garlic.

At the end of elegant proofs and lyric,                                     11
incoherent furious trolls in diapers.                                         11
Fragile and ephemeral as all beauty:                                       11
The human spirit -                                                                          5                                                            

Sappho, of course, is well known for her closeness to other women, and indeed the island she lived on, Lesbos, is the source of modern usage of the word ‘lesbian’.   In the letter to MK there is no suggestion of a sexual closeness,  of course.   The use of the syllabic metre, though,  embodies the idea of strangeness and exile, since syllable length is less important, rhythmically, in English than is syllable stress.  But poetry in Farsi,  MK’s first language, is syllabic.     This adds to the theme of exile and foreignness the poem assumes

The letter to Mimi Khalvati is a fairly late poem, from the collection called Names, in 2010.   I wanted to look at it first because it illustrates very well the Wordsworthian conception of poetry as ‘a man speaking to men’,  by which Wordsworth would have meant woman, and women, as well.  Much of his own poetry was written in fact, to his sister.  And it illustrates the quotidian ambience so typical of Hackers, and Wordsworth’s poetry.   Hacker is in other ways, of course, very unlike Wordsworth, in particular in being an urban poet, and in her treatment of ‘home’ from the viewpoint of an exile.

Marilyn Hacker’s  Love, Death and the Changing is a narrative poem told in a sequence of sonnets about the relationship of the ‘I’ of the poem to a much young woman.   The younger woman is attached to someone else at first and must lusted after.  Eventually she takes up with ‘I’ and we get descriptions of their life together, punctuated by many separations in which the the poet expresses a great deal of longing.  Eventually the younger woman cools and at the end the relationship is ended by her.   Hacker uses a good deal of the romantic love tradition, and often recalls the sonnets of Shakespeare (many of which are themselves said to be homosexual love poems).   Here is one example sonnet from the very long sequence (219 pages).   This sonnet does not following the Shakespearean rhyme scheme, ending in a couplet.

Didn’t Sappho say her guts clutched up like this?                                 a
Before a face suddenly numinous,                                                            b
her eyes watered, knees melted.  Did she lactate                                   c
again, milk brought down by a girl’s kiss?                                              a
It’s documented torrents are unloosed                                                    d
by such events as recently produced                                                         d
not the wish, but the need, to consume, in us,                                        b
one point of Maalox[1], one of Kaopectate[2].                                          c

My eyes and groin are permanently swollen,                                        e
I’m alternatingly brilliant and witless                                                     f
-  and sleepless:  bed is just a swamp to roll in.                                    e
Although I’d cream my jeans touching your breast,                            g
sweetheart, it isn’t lust:  it’s all the rest                                                 g
of what I want with you that scares me shitless.                                  f

The poem, like most sonnets, is in two parts,  a topic (first eight lines, or octave)  and a comment (last six lines, or sestet).    Traditionally these are often broken down into two four liners (quatrains) in the topic, and two (three liners (tercets) in the sestet.   Hacker’s rhyme scheme doesn’t underline this second subdivision,  but the grammar does with the question mark after ‘kiss’ and ‘in’.   But her rhyme scheme does reinforce the larger scale division into two, since the rhymes in the first part interconnect, and so do this in the second part, but not with each other.

I’ve changed the original layout above simply to  bring out the structure, the traditional ‘petrarchan’ shape She evokes the lesbian lover, Sappho with a rhetorical question, and the  effects of love and longing are expressed in clear, indeed medical, terms.  There is no talk of ‘love’ in the spiritual sense, by plenty about the effects of lust.   It seems that the new affair is started in the sense that the desire to be lovers is acknowledged in both of them,  but the and MH describes the physical effects of it,   the watering eyes and melting knows, lactation indeed.  And it creates stomach ailments to be relieved by pills!

After the invocation of Sappho and ‘guts’ she refers to ‘a face suddenly numinous’ which could be a face looking in imagination, or in real life suddenly rendered numinous, that is suggesting a more mysterious spiritual world beyond the immediate, however immediate that is, a way of describing sexual desire and sexual experience in mystical terms.   The same sort of ‘documented’ experience is felt ‘in us’, a ‘need’ not directly for love making but for relief from the effects of frustration.  

MH comes out very clearly here in ‘celebration’ if that is the right word of female desire, so often denied in traditional sexology.

The ‘comment’ part of the sonnet moves from the Sappho link to the poet’s own bodily symptoms described without any ‘romantic’ vocabulary, and again in medical-like language ‘swollen’, and the sleeplessness is again done through the physical effects ‘a swamp to roll in’ – a wonderfully tactile image, following by the physical effects of touching the loved one’s breast,  but here the focus on the physical and the lustful is mitigated.   The sestet is split into two sentences.  The first is a direct description of not being able to sleep.  The second beings with an ‘although’, and the main clause of the first sentence is ‘it isn’t lust’.    Lust is, as it were, a symptom, of something else, which MH doesn’t go so far as to call ‘love’, but ‘all the rest of what I want with you’.    If this isn’t lust it must be something like a relationship, a commitment, a need for the person.   And this ‘scares me shitless’ because of course it makes her vulnerable, particularly being a older partner to someone who may well have other admirers, and at the end of the book, does reject the poet.  The affair when it begins lasts for about a year.

Despite it’s broadly Petrarchan form,  the sonnet does end with a two line clincher which reminds us of the Shakespearean kind of sonnet.    This is very artfully done.  She’s given us a strong sequence of images about lust, and yet, when it comes to the end, the point, of the poem,   lust isn’t the point:  “it’s all the rest.”

The physical imagery makes the passage erotic rather than amatory.   And perhaps a slight weakness in the sequence as a whole is it’s comparative lack of interest in Rachel, the loved one, as a person, a ‘character’.

The poem is obviously a lesbian poem, and also a feminist poem in the sense that it asserts feminine desire in  ways that have often been found inappropriate.   The vocabulary is earthy and perhaps to some shocking.   Not many love poems end with the word ‘shitless’.  

The poem is remarkably sustained, bringing in friends, the poet’s very mature and understanding daughter,  and many of the quotidian places and objects and foods that are familiar in Hacker’s poetry.   The end is not, for the poet, just the end of another love affair, but ‘the end of being young’.  It’s as if she’s lost some chance, perhaps of a lasting relationship, perhaps of the joy of falling in love from time to time.

Did you love well what very soon you left?
Come home and take me in your arms and take
away this stomach ache, headache, heartache.
Never so full, I never was bereft
so utterly.  The winter evenings drift
dark to the window.  Not one word will make
you, where you are, turn in your day, or wake
from your night toward me.  The only gift
I got to keep or give is what I’ve cried,
floodgates let down to mourning for the dead
chances, for the end of being young,
for everyone I loved who really died.
I drank our one year out of brine instead
of honey from the seasons of your tongue

The poem starts with an echo of Shakespeare’s love sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang 
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou seest the twilight of such day 
As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by and by black night doth take away, 
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 
As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by. 
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, 
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

This is a poem about growing old (Hacker is 42 at the time this poem was published).  The first line of Hacker’s poem echoes the last of Shakespeare’s

Did you love well what very soon you left? (Hacker)
To love that well which thou must leave ere long   (Shakespeare)

The idea that love is intensified by knowledge that it can’t last, as by implication in the imagery of both poems, life itself.   The year of the love affair for Hacker is compared to the imager of the time of year, Winter, which traditionally symbolises old age, the opposite of the lovers’ spring.
She writes  who the lover will now not even think of her through the nights, and goes on
The only gift
I got to keep or give is what I’ve cried,
floodgates let down to mourning for the dead
chances, for the end of being young,
for everyone I loved who really died.

A gift, not of love, but of sad memory, or perhaps the  poems she’s cried and is crying.   And this sense of loss is modulated to   ‘mourning for the dead’ and the placing of ‘dead’ at the line end for a moment makes us draw a parallel between love and dead, as if she’s mourning for ‘the dead’,  as Hacker does, often in her later poems.  But no, the next line reorientates by adding ‘chances’.  It’s the ‘dead/chances’ that are lost, a like Shakespeare it’s the ‘end of being young’.   But then, she does move into the more generally mourning  ‘for everyone I loved who really dead’,  but metaphorically as love ‘dies’.   The poem becomes at this stage an expression of loneliness.

This poems is very full on and passionate, and written to a single ‘you’.   It has a narrative unity in that it moves from the beginning to the end of a love affair.

The title poem in Squares and Courtyards is not overall a narrative, but is full of anecdotes, small scale recounted memories.   It deals with memory.   She begins in Paris at the Place du Marche Ste-Catherine where she lives for part of each year.        We start with the quotidian, and a celebration of the quotidian.   Hacker describes walking home from the bakery, seeing open windows, a

                                sudden green
and scarlet window-box geraniums
backlit in cloud-encouraged clarity
against the centry-patinaed gray

and even as we read this we feel in the writing a sense of art, the ‘backlit cloud-encouraged clarity’ of an oil painting,   the somewhat adjectival wording of a poet just that bit too much intent on turning a scene into words, a theme we come back to in the poem.  But the passage, for the present, leads into a sense of glory in the simple and the everyday, the scene she sees

                is such a gift of the quotidian,
                a benefice of sight and consciousness,

and it makes her

                   sometimes stop, confused with gratitude,
                not knowing what to thank or whom to bless

and the religious terms ‘benefice’,  ‘bless’ lead back to the loaf she has bought which she now breaks  as Jesus did as a kind of physical prayer.

                break of an end of seven-grain baguette
                as if my orchestrated senses could
                confirm the day.

The literary, self-conscious wording returns in ‘orchestrated senses’.   Orchestrated how, and by whom?    By creation itself?  Or by the way she is putting them into words.  She speculates:  ‘as if’ they could ‘confirm the day’.   How ‘confirm’?      How does one confirm a day?   Suddenly we realize the poet has pushed us to that point where we are not quite sure what the word ‘confirm’ means.  Is  it the same as ‘affirm?’.    Is it like ‘seize the day’?   I suggest we are talking about language, speaking, writing, organizing and making full real what the senses experience, and confirm that interpretation. 

The first poem ends with ‘I eat it’, and there’s a nice confusion as to whether it’s the bread or the day that she eats.  Both, of course, the bread as an synecdoche  of the day, the part standing for the whole, and this idea too runs through the poem, since as it develops we see the poem always unsure exactly how  accurate the verbal memory, re-telling is, or can ever be.  It is perhaps necessarily in the hands of the words.

The poems in this sequence are sonnets with variable rhyme schemes but based on the Petrarchan model, where there is a turn at line eight.  Here it comes after the description of the quotidian, the second part of the poem, the sestet,  beginning ‘a benefice’,  where she reflects on what has been laid out in the first eight (octave).     The turn pivots on the word ‘benefice’, which is a gloss, almost on ‘quotidian’.  The dictionary says, under the ‘ecclesiastical’  subheading:  ‘a church office endowed with fixed capital assets that provide a living.’  Her angle on this is to see her poor locale as ‘endowed with fixed capital assets’ but not monetary ones, and these ‘provide a living’ as opposed to a priestly income.   ‘A living’ chimes well with ‘quotidian’.

The second sonnet is linked, chain-like, by Hacker’s taking up the last line of the previous one, adapting it slightly and making it a new opening.  The present image of enjoying the simple ‘pain aux raisins’ at tea time, merges into memory which she introduces ambiguously by referring not to herself directly but ‘a schoolchild’, and the setting ‘like mine’

                It’s the hour for a schoolchild’s treat,
                munched down, warm in waxed paper, on the street,
                or picked at on chipped earthenware (like mine)
                beside books marked with homework to be done
                while the street’s sunlit, dusk-lit, lamplit.

This girl is described in the third person.

                She sucks her pencil.

And Hacker now characterizes the ‘she’ as her own nostalgia which she sips, like, with, her tea.  But but she sips

                nostalgia for a childhood not my own
                Bronx kitchen table

The scene’s already be set as Paris.  The child she sees may be a child she’s seen there who reminds her of her own childhood, or simply her own childhood as described now and with now’s words. I think probably she sees an actual child and that child makes her think of herself when a child.

And the second sonnet ends with a visual memory of the Bronx and its languages.   Her kitchen and surrounding alley ‘have filtered out the other languages’ of this multicultural area.   She doesn’t quite hear voices, but languages in the crosscurrents of the airshaft.  

This second sonnet then makes a transition from Paris to New York,  her own middle aged survivor’s sense of ‘now’ in the Place de la Marche with the Bronx.

The third sonnet takes up the ‘airshaft’s crosscurrents’ of other cultures, which underlie in a physical sense, her Jewish upbringing,  ‘the minyan davening morning offices’.   But the other cultures are there all the same and we get the Polish janitor’s son, Joseph aged six,  doing his best with English, and then  ‘Other syllables’,  again focusing our attention on the materiality of language and languages.   The turn occurs in this sonnet, here at line 9, where the mix of cultures within her street, is widen into ‘news from gutted Europe’, that is the war, and it’s dreadful resonances for Jews.   It’s as if the news of the camps has floated to them on ‘dusty motes’  and ‘ash’ settling physically on the bricks.  So dust becomes a metaphor for language  ‘spun up the shaft with voices of old Jews’.     Dust and ash, of course, are potent reminders, also, of the concentration camps.

In this way Hacker draws us into the childhood of the poet, although we still remember that in a sense it is not her own.  But it also brings in the theme of Jewishness, and  the mix of peoples.   The shafts of different languages include those of the Jews.   This partly quotidian partly symbolic ash is first ‘spun up the shaft’ and then ‘drawn down’ garrulous chain-smokers’ throats.  The Jews breathe the very air of ‘gutted Europe’ and Nazi atrocities.   But they are not talking about that.  It is there in the language not referred to by the language.   Garrulous is homely and implies chattering on about this and that.  But it is also language.   Language is what draws them together.  Talking is what they like to do.

The fourth sonnet takes up the ‘garrulous chain-smokers’ throats’ but now over the sea, and in the present, in La Place due Marche, the same kind of people.   And we get the wet cobblestones of the locale, the ‘green-clad’ African street cleaner, and then what the garrulousness, the language, covers.   The sense of poverty comes with the halfway unbuttoned coats, and the outside talker’s being threatened by the rain.    The clouds

                                                converge like boats
                in the mutable blue harbour sky.

the boats, again, suggesting distance and other countries, and the ‘mutable’ adjective taking us back to the quotidian, the real of what the Elizabethans called ‘mutability’,  the state of change to which human life is fated.   But the idea of change comes in in a different way, when the coffee and wine drinkers are shown to be turning ‘reality’ into this conversation,

                                as if events were ours to rearrange
                with words, as if dailiness forestalled change

Hacker complicates the theme of language and its role as a lens through which everything is ‘seen’,  ours to ‘rearrange’ in the sense of how we interpret but not as to events themselves.   Turning the news into words in one sense ‘forestalls’ change in the sense that putting them into words ‘sets’ them in language,  which, of course, will outlast our lives.  At the same time it’s this very language that makes life, and in a sense challenges the silence of death

                as long as someone listens when we spoke

This last line is altered in the first line of the fifth sonnet to the first person.   The focus in the previous two sonnets has been on family and neighbours, district, and conversation.  Now Hacker moves into her own memory, or so at first it seems, recalling herself as a child hugging a neighbour’s dog,  which in term through ‘speech and touch’  invoke her grandmother,  Gisela, shifting the focus from the Bronx childhood to Prague here Gisela comes from, establishing the intercultural background of the poet herself  beyond the Bronx to which her family immigrated.   Gisela is recalled vaguely because a her memory hadn’t yet ‘begun’ at the age she refers to,  ‘the fog of infancy’ being linked to the ‘smoke above the camps (and Dresden and Japan) which lie deeply in  her nevertheless, but primarily as something learnt about, as a matter of conversation, language.     The way ‘lives dispersed’  in the sense of being destroyed as well as moved away from home,  makes her think of the camps as having also dispersed her possible history,

someone else I might have been
                if memory braided with history.

This implies that memory does not braid with history, has not braided with history.  But what does she mean by ‘braided with history’.   Her own memory is not literally interlaced with history because she got away, and yet the history is there still as a ‘might have been’?  She would have been someone else had she been a Jew in Prague then.

She comes back to the very sensuous image of the dog  whose fur the child is pressing her face into, a memory sharper perhaps than words, and ‘learnt by heart’ on the analogy of words,  but Gisela has ‘receded into words I found for her’.   Words she is using now to create her (again) in words, although slightly ambiguous because ‘finding’ words can be like a search into memory too.

Then, in the sixth sonnet,  Hacker adjust this phrasing  by running on the sense past ‘her’ and turning into a dependent clause so that ‘someone’,  a neighbour, becomes the subject of the main clause.

‘Receding into words I found for her
delight, someone was dispossessed of her own
story (she thought) by mine’

The ‘someone’ as it were ‘becomes’ the story by which the poet talks of and to her.
It’s not quite clear of the ‘someone’ is the same person as the ‘early rising’ ‘”centenarian”’.   She cannot be summed in in a word, centenarian’.  But she still is language, ‘a lexicon’, though.   Probably she is not because this sonnet consists of a list of examples of people made in, out of words.  The next is ‘a girl on paper’ whom she made when she ‘bore/a child’.   Again  daughter is thought through metaphors of reproduction,  the photocopier, the ‘tattoo across a watermark’.   A watermark is ‘ a faint design made in some paper during manufacture that is visible when held against the light and typically identifies the maker’,  and a tattoo is a kind of lasting mark often made to retain the image of a loved one.  And of course, again, linguistic, the daughter ‘shares her name’.   The last example of the people thought of in and through language is her grandmother, Gisela, whose death is described in Paragraphs from a Daybook

I dash ahead, new whistle in my hand.
She runs behind.  The car.  The almost-silent
thud.  Gisela, prone, also silent, on the ground

Here again what has happened is reshaped in language for the child who is told that she’s gone to  Florida, but yet knows she is dead, and her link with Gisela particularly is with someone who speaks and listens.

                Gisela, who took me to the park,
for whom I pieced together sentences
-           it’s all the words she said to me I miss

The words are both missed and retained (in memory).  

The seventh sonnet takes up the theme of language again, and Gisela who took her ‘down  to unechoed
accents’ (We remembering the echoy airshafts).  But the memory is unclear because she’s only two.  Hacker broadens the them to take in European languages (again),  Czech, German, Yiddish, her father’s learning English.   And here she also comes back to the schoolgirl in this mix of voices.

                                                The air’s thick
                with cognates, questions and parentheses
                she’ll scribble down once she’s back in her room
                chewing her braid, tracing our labyrinthine

The girl is not her.  This is an girl she’s seen and imagines herself as.  The scene is not the Bronx of Marilyn Hacker’s childhood, but the  present Place du Marche across which the girl is walking home with her satchel on her back.  Marilyn Hacker is turning this girl into an image, a word image, of herself as she might have been.   The mention of ‘chewing her braid’  recalls the metaphorical use of the word ‘braid’ earlier,  where the same them is mooted,

                                someone else I might have been
                if memory braided with history

The low clouds are the ones picked out as being like ‘boats/ in the mutable blue harbour sky’,  associated with distances.

The last sonnet is a finale in which lines and phrases from what has gone before are reintroduced in a different combination.   Here she both identifies with and distinguishes herself from and at the same time fictionalizes the ‘schoolchild at the window’ who for a moment she wonders may have ‘a yellow star sew on her dress’ – as it were, if history , time and place, had been different, as she Hacker, might have, and ‘confused with gratitude’ in the survivors are confused, even guilty, she sees that this muddle history ‘requires a lexicon’,   that is, needs to be written in such a way that memory is  ‘braided with history’, and this girl has time ‘reflective decades’ to write it.  And although Hacker is talking about a girl, she’s also thinking of her own middle age.  The girl has time to reflect

                Not think, she’ll get old (or not) and die,

taking us back to the quotidian chat in the Place in which being listened to temporarily rubs out the thought of death, as in another way a poet may.   And she ends conflating the girl with her own wish.  Can this ‘memory braided with history’ be written down, turn into, kept in, language.   The girl, like Marilyn is made to think
                she can, if anybody could

a most deft switch from the present modal ‘can’ to the more oblique and/or past ‘could’.

This is a wonderful poem in which thoughts about history, particularly the tribulations of Europe and the plight of the Jews, and with that more general the mixture of races in the present,   is  mixed with a personal past which is yet distanced perhaps by the very survival of the poet, and also through her ability to see that history in or through the quotidian of her own life and those around her.

Marilyn Hacker is sometimes labelled ‘formalist’ although she has often said how meaningless this label is.    It indicates that she writes in metrical forms which have a long history, rather than in modernist or post-imagist forms which subvert the traditional norms of metre and lineation .  We’ve seen her use of the Sapphic,  a modification of that in the Letter to Mimi Khalvati, and her adaptation of the Petrarchan sonnet.   Paragraphs from a Daybook, from Squares and Courtyards is a long poem with the quotidian setting of her Paris home, very much concerned with those around her, and her past.   It’s a daybook in the sense that it starts with whatever’s outside the widower, as it were, it links it up with the poets life and times.   The term ‘paragraph’  refers to a fifteen line stanza borrowed from Hayden Carruth.  She          says in an interview

Carruth liked to emphasize the paragraph’s differences from the sonnet: how the shorter lines 7 and 8 introducing a third rhyme break the train of thought while not forming part of a sestet’s response/resolution, for example.

The metre of the poem is based on stress timing, that is the number of stressed syllables per line is fixed, whereas the number of unstressed syllables is not, although often it slips into an iambic rhythm.  In the following paragraph from the long sequence, she has moved from the quotidian of her immediate life to the wider historical past of her friends.

A Résistant father died in a concentration                              5 beats    a rhyme
camp.   A fifty-year-old father was a prisoner                         5 beats    b  rhyme                           
of war from ’39 till the Liberation.                                            5 beats    a  rhyme
The Germans shot another father                                              4 beats    b  rhyme
and his mother during the Occupation:                                   4 beats   a  rhyme
the Breton maquis betrayed by infiltration –                         5 beats    a  rhyme          

The first six lines, before the rhyme break she lists casualties of the war.      The section is based on the interweaving of just two rhymes and mainly 5 beat lines.   However, on some scansions (mine for example) lines
3, 5 and 6 would have 4 beats.  But those, I think, would anyway be acceptable variations.   Then the paragraph goes on

collaborators were everywhere.                                                  4* beats   c rhyme
A grandfather, a grandmother,                                                   4 beats     c rhyme
both eighty-one, pacifists,                                                            4* beats    d rhyme
were gunned down by the Milice.  They                                    4 beats      e rhyme
left a note pinned to the old man’s chest:                                  5 beats      d rhyme
Le juif paye toujours.   The Jew always pays.                          6 beats      e rhyme
Their son had shot himself at the end                                        4 beats      f  rhyme
of the “drôle de guerre”[i] in 1940.                                            4 beats      e rhyme
These are the absent fathers of my friends.                               4* beats      f rhyme

The asterisked marked beat numbers could be shortened on another way of measuring stress.   The final line, although on a strictly stressed timed reading has just 4 beats, could also be read more traditionally, as I think it should be, as an iambic pentameter where ‘the first ‘foot’ is reversed, and ‘of’ uslifted to stress status by convention.

                These are the absent fathers of my friends

which for the first time generalizes the examples provided through the poem so far, and with a very effective forcefulness (the resonance of the pentameter) brings together yet again Hacker’s sense of here and now, and the awful ‘big’ events from which this life has emerged and by which it is still shaped.

In Braid of Garlic,   Hacker interweaves some sympathetic material about herself with a kind of elegy for the Palestiniean poet, Mahmu Darwish.  It begins, typically with the quotidian, the necessity of ‘life must go on’ in spite of and alongside loss

Aging women mourn while they go to market,
buy fish, figs, tomatoes, enough for today to
feed the wolf asleep underneath the table
who wakes from what dream?

The wolf of hunger is no ‘at the door’, but under the table asleep, as if it has to be placated with some titbits so that the family can survive.   Otherwise, presumably, it will ‘eat’ them.   The wolf, she asks, ‘wakes from what dream?’,  perhaps the dream consciousness of folklore with its unconscious dream logic;   or perhaps it is a suggestion that the wolf’s dreams are horrific, and he has lots of them.    We may recall Milton’s lines in Lycidas

The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw
Rot inwardly and foul contagian spread:
 Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace

Here the Wolf is connected to Satan,  or perhaps evil more generally.

The mourning is set in this conext of insecurity and social unjustice in which a constant, while seasons change, is loss.

What but loss comes round with the changing season?
He is dead whom, daring, I called a brother
with that leftover life perched on his shoulder
cawing departure.

She  doesn’t mention Darwish by name, only as one she thought of as a brother,  he threatened not by the wolfe, but that other doom creature, the crow, death ‘perched on his shoulder’.
The uncertainties of the seasons, and the poor, are linked then to the chance, perhaps the Devil’s dice indeed.
Darwish risks a final operation but the gamble fails.  The idea of death is continued here too with mention of the ‘last best interlocutor’,  perhaps reminding us of a ‘judgement day’,  God or Allah is his ‘best interlocutor’  in the sense that he’s not to be deceived.

Hacker alludes here to Darwish’s poem,  The Dice Player in which he plays with the idea of chance and the experiences of his and indeed all of our lives.   But the last throw,  -   the  epitome of life as ‘might/might not’ -  as it were, is the surgery from which the poet does not recover.

He made one last roll of the dice.  He met his
last, best interlocutor days before he
lay down for the surgery that might/might not
extend the gamble.

Hacker allows that the final interview or perhaps prayer is not to be shared by us.  The upshot is that, in the next stanza,   ‘Now a son writer elegies,’ though he has a living father’. 

What they said belongs to them.  Now a son writes
elegies, though he has a living father.
One loves sage tea, one gave the world the scent of
his mother’s coffee.

This seems to refer to Darwish’s son mourning his dead father who in another sense, as a poet, is still living.     The ‘son’ is probably a literary son, and may be the poet  Fady Joudah,  his admirer and translator.
Hacker brings both back to the quotidian tea and mother’s coffee.    In his memoir of Darwish,  Elias Khoury wrote

                ‘and he turned poetry into morning coffee, and dreams a sash of love’

a sash, perhaps not being dissimilar to a braid,

There’s then a jump, via the quotidian coffee,  from the immediate topic of Darwish to  Hacker’s own life.   The associative link here is that she too is, if not a son, at least a ‘brother’ as she’s mentioned, and an admirer of a poet with a  more direct political commitment even than herself.  

Light has shrunk back to what it was in April,
incrementally will shrink back to winter.
I can’t call my peregrinations “exile,”
but count the mornings.

She’s aware of her own mortality as Darwish had been for some time with his illness,  and she like him is a kind of ‘exile’, though unlike him in not being exiled.     She counts each day.    Darwish had refered to ‘braids’ in the sense of  the entwined hair of a young woman, symbolising his devasted homeland.   The braid of garlic is perhaps symbolic here too,  being as Carol Rumens reminds us, associated with evil, warding off vampires, and as well as in other poems by Hacker,  the braid is an image of harmony.

In a basket hung from the wall, its handle
festooned with cloth flowers from the chocolate boxes,
mottle purple shallots, and looped beside it,
a braid of garlic:

The braid of garlic, again local, domestic.    But braid might also suggest, the interweaving of experience,  his and hers,  her past and present.    And this association perhaps gives rise to Hacker’s movement next into memory,  again associated with mortality and disease.   The theme of morality is underlined by the image of the birthday, those many ‘returns’ it reminds us of, as well as the celebration with candlelight and wine,  counterpointing one aspect of the ceremony of birthdays with another.  

I remember, ten days after a birthday
(counterpoint and candlelight in the wine-glass),
how the woman radiolist’s fingers
probed, not caressing.

And we get her illness,  breast cancer,   and like the birthday,  recurring.

So reprise (what wasn’t called a “recurrence”)
of a fifteen-years-ago rite of passage:
I arrived, encumbered with excess baggage,
scarred on the threshold.

She refers to her ‘rite of passage’ through the disease, and also arriving ‘encumbered with excess baggage’ as if arriving not at a hospital (‘Gobelins’),  but an airport, preparing for a ‘journey’.

Through the mild winter sun in February,
two or three times weekly to Gobelins, the
geriatric hospital where my friend was
getting her nerve back.

So far she’s moved by association from mourning Darwish to her own parallel trial, and now she moves on again to the trials of ‘my friend’ who was ‘getting her nerve back’,

At the end of elegant proofs and lyric,
incoherent furious trolls in diapers.
Fragile and ephemeral as all beauty:
the human spirit –

The first sentence of this stanza is minor (no main verb), such that the commar serves as a pause suggestiong ‘there were’.   The ‘elegant proofs and lyric’,  is presumably a way of characterising the carefully intellectual analysis of the friend’s condition, lyric in that elegance,  as for all their being well and indeed professionally intentioned, have not helped and have left her with her mental derrangement,   either seeing these fantasy trolls, or indeed behaving like them (in diapers for lack of continence).    The next line is beautifully sympathetic.  How easy it would be to dismissing the suffering from voices and visions, and to see it and them as ugly and to be pushed away. No,  Hacker talks of ‘all beauty’,  and the human spirit is celebrating with compassion because it is  so ‘fragile and epheeral’,  and with ‘ephemeral’ we return to the idea of time,  the idea of time passing in birthdays,  but also in the seasons,  and the crops in the market at different times – with which the poem began.  

while the former journalist watched, took notes and
shoked, regaled her visitors with dispatches
from the war zone in which she was embedded,
biding her time there.

She then moves from her friend, another sick perhaps  in’the war zone in which she was embedded’, perhaps literally once, but now the war zone is her own mortal body,  ‘biding’ her time having the literal meaning of ‘ab iding’, or hanging on.

Now in our leftover lives, we toast our
memories and continuence.  I have scars where
breasts were, her gnarled fingers, these days, can hardly
hold the pen steady.

Hacker then links together the four lives she’s been talking about,  ‘our leftover lives’ and  talks of toasting ‘our memories and continuence’,  recalling the wine image earlier when talking of her own birthday, and coming back to the theme of her own body with

‘I have scars where breasts were’

and linking that to her journalist friend’s ‘gnarled fingers’, and then the ‘pen’ she can’t hold steady brings us back to the writer, Darwish – himself also a journalist and poet-as-journalist in the Islamic tradition –
Darwish whose operation fails, and he reaches that ‘utter solitude’ of the end.   the ‘multiple organ failure’ is, in the spirit of Darwish’s writing on the one hand a personal image, his own death,  but also an image of his forlorn country under ‘life-support’

Thousands mourn him, while in the hush and hum of
life-support for multiple organ failure,
utter solitude, poise of scarlet wings that
flutter, and vanish.[ii]

The last two lines move into an image of a butterfly, which Darwish himself used, as a symbol of the soul (as Carol Rumen’s notes, as she does also the image of the butterfly with spread wings as the human ribcage).    The poem ends with the ‘flutter, and vanish’ of life itself.

This poem is usually for an elegy in that for much of the time it moves  away from the person eulogized to the eulogizer herself and then to her friends.    But this is characteristic of many of Hacker’s poems,  shaping them like personal letters in which the writer moves from one topic to another associatively, not in order to make some sort of point.   The unity of the poem is no what she says about Darwish so much as the way in which he is place within the quotidian of her own life, and not as a secondary importance.

[1] powder to reduce stomach acid
[2] medicine for indigestion, diarrhoea

[i] drôle de guerre”  -  the ‘phoney war’
[ii] from Names

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