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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
Also, there is a strange cardboard quality to her descriptions of
the objects of her worldthese only come to life when in concert with her persona.
For instance, the following passage is from her previous collection Winter Numbers
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
elsefor 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.