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Difficult Transitions

Squares and Courtyards by Marilyn Hacker. Norton, 2000. $21.00

As Reviewed By: Justin Quinn

Poetic autobiography has always been the grand theme of the poetry of Marilyn Hacker. “Rooms in Bloomsbury” from her first book, Presentation Piece (1974), might have talked of “The horrors of the personal, revealed / in indiscreetly published cahiers”, but those very horrors, and of course the joys (of erotic love, parenthood, friendship), have animated her chosen forms for over thirty years now. In formal terms she has fairly ransacked the pantheon: spates of sonnets, terza rima, villanelles, sestinas, sapphics, coronas, and much more, which have sounded like no-one else’s and so have extended the tonal and thematic possibilities of these forms. In Squares and Courtyards, she seems to have even discovered a new type of rhyme. “Wednesday I.D. Clinic” gives us, among others, such felicities as “selves/vessels”, “might/time”, “T-cell/be less”, “lips/pills”, and “lament/mental”. One has to be careful, however, not to approach her poetry with the same kind of expectations as one would, say, Anthony Hecht’s or Richard Wilbur’s, as her use of form provides none of the pleasures of their poetry. Michael Longley’s distinction between the fountain of poetry and river of prose is helpful here, as it is a distinction which Hacker’s poetry baffles. Hecht and Wilbur use form to slow down language and draw attention to its sumptuous intricacies. Puns, alliteration, assonance are all delicately balanced to provide a pleasure in the music and images of the poem. Even a poetic autobiographer like James Merrill never drew away from such devices. With Hacker, the autobiography is so focused, so unrelenting, and so headlong, that she never has time to attend to such effects.[private]

Also, there is a strange cardboard quality to her descriptions of the objects of her world—these only come to life when in concert with her persona. For instance, the following passage is from her previous collection Winter Numbers (1994):

Syllables shaped around the darkening day’s
contours. Next to armchairs, on desks, lamps
were switched on. Tires hissed softly on the damp
tar. In my room, a flute concerto played.
Slate roofs glistened in the rain’s thin glaze.
I peered out from a cave like a warm bear.

The fifth line is technically weak: it is too clotted with awkward assonance (slate/rain/glaze; glis-/thin) and alliteration (roofs/rains; glis-/glaze) to be of any real use as description; and the line pales beside the next, with its humour and engaging simile of the self’s particular situation. Once again, it would be wrong to look to her poetry, as one does, say, to Donald Justice’s, for nuanced accounts of the appearances of things and scenes.

With Hacker, these lacks seems to be the price paid for something else—for the humorous, engaging, self-deprecating voice of the person making difficult transitions, from heterosexuality to lesbianism, from one relationship to the next, from New York to Paris, and in the midst of this trying to bring up her daughter. Also, up to now, her very lack of interest historical and cultural background seems typical of most city dwellers who live in cities they were not born and bred in, but have arrived in from elsewhere. These people are not imbricated into their surroundings in the way someone who goes back generations in that place does, with family stories winding the self into the city and its history. In this respect then, Squares and Courtyards, with its strong interest in European history and American diasporas, marks something of a thematic departure for Hacker. Her point of connection is her own family history (one grandmother a Czech who escaped Europe in World War II) as well as that of her friends, and also the local history of the Jewish area in Paris, the Marais, where Hacker spends part of the year. This location allows her ample opportunity to transcribe the contemporary world of a modern metropolis, and also question her own position as privileged survivor of the larger ravages of history.

The highlight of the book is the 40-page sequence which ends it, “Paragraphs from a Daybook”, with rhymed and untitled 15-line sections. Hacker must feel that she has in previous work solidly established the main players and situations in her poetic autobiography; this then leaves her free in the sequence to drift off from narrative into a more associative mode, as one memory leads to an observation to a meditation and so on. Which is difficult to demonstrate by quotation, as it depends on a larger knowledge not just of the book but Hacker’s oeuvre in general. But given the calibre of her writing, in this collection and most of her mature work, she seems completely justified in making such a demand upon the reader.[/private]

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- who has written 13 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Justin Quinn was born in Dublin in 1968 and educated at Trinity College Dublin, where he received his doctorate in 1995. Since then he has worked as a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague, where he lives with his wife and son. His first two books of poems, The 'O'o'a'a' Bird (which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection) and Privacy, were published by Carcanet. His third book of poems, Fuselage, was published by Gallery Press in 2002 and his study, Gathered Beneath the Storm: Wallace Stevens, Nature and Community was recently published by University College Dublin Press. Metre, which he edited with David Wheatley for ten years. 2005 sees the publication of his American Errancy: Empire, Sublimity and Modern Poetry, a study of American poetry from T. S. Eliot to Jorie Graham. At present he is writing The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000 and works at the Charles University, Prague.

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