|Excerpts > Fall 2001, 75th Anniversary Celebration and Conference Issue|
|Marilyn Hacker, Squares and Courtyards, W. W. Norton
reviewed by Esther Cameron
Marilyn Hacker's ninth collection is written under the aspect of transiency. Reflected in the poems are the realities of a breast cancer diagnosis, mastectomy, chemotherapy, a body no longer whole, the fear of recurrence, the waking up to the "scandal" of death; also the illnesses and deaths of relatives, friends, acquaintances, strangers: other sufferers from cancer in the poet's circle, the victims of AIDS and drugs cared for by her lover, the poet's daughter's best friend in a car crash, the poet's grandmother in a pedestrian accident long ago, the victims of the Holocaust and World War II, a vital elderly friend, a revered older poet (Muriel Rukeyser), a homeless man whose funeral is described. Geographical transiency also pervades the book: the poet lives half in New York, half in Paris, and at one point settled in Ohio, only to be abruptly uprooted after starting a garden. The poem which relates this event, "Tentative Gardening," also laments the brevity of the connection with Nadine who had supervised the planting: "and I wonder where and from whom I’ll learn to/ put in a garden." Friends fade out in the transcontinental shuffle; strangers (like the schoolgirls in "Rue de Belleyme") appear as vivid images, give rise to equally vivid speculations about their lives, and move offscreen again. One of the central poems -- "Again, the River" -- shows the poet sitting beside the Seine; the book might have had for a motto Heraclitus's "All things are in flux."
The poet both fights and celebrates the flux, as if from a deep understanding that life and death cannot be separated. One strategy against the flux is, of course, form: "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines/ And keep him there," as Millay wrote. Hacker is one of the masters of form of the age, and once again she proves her dexterity with the sonnet, the crown of sonnets, terza rima, sapphics. All the poems in the book are rhymed, except for a set of haiku, but the rhymes are so discreetly worked into the text that one can fail to notice them. A particular pleasure is the way exact and off-rhymes are blended without awkwardness, as in the final sonnet of "Taking Leave of Zenka," where the rhymes are: wound/ interred/ bird/ around/ beyond/ blurred/ shirred/ friend/ son/ floor/ rudiments/ more/ France/ afternoon. The meter, with varying degrees of rigidity, manages to be equally unobtrusive. The closing of the formal circle comes each time as a victory over the dissolving stream. Another strategy for chaos control is the sharp focus on the particular: "as if dailiness forestalled change." There is a constant invocation of "innocent objects": "a tin plate, a basement/ door, a spade, barbed wire, a ring of keys," cherries in an outdoor market (six varieties), a dog's coat, "spiced pumpkin soup," "Tissue-wrapped clementines/ from Morocco," the sci-fi paperback a homeless man is reading. By fixing the names of these objects in the sound-texture (always rich and bristling) of the verse, the poet reaffirms the fact of her existence, and the existence of her friends and fellow-sufferers and all the displaced, here and now and again in that ghostly semblance of permanence which the text gives ("Persistently, on paper, we exist").
But of course objects like a spade and barbed wire are not innocent. Neither are the cherries, as it turns out (they lead to birds, then to the yellow bird whistle, which the poet's grandmother had just bought for her at the moment of that long-ago fatal accident). Objects have associations that take one elsewhere in space and time, and the movement of the poem as a whole often seems to be determined by free association, by the stream of consciousness. Thus in the title poem, "Squares and Courtyards" (which received Prairie Schooner's Strousse Award in 1998) the poet is at first standing in the Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, eating a baguette. She sees (or imagines?) a schoolgirl chewing on a pencil at a window. She thinks back to her own childhood, the courtyard of the house in New York where she grew up. By a train of association involving discussions of Holocaust news, ashes, chain smokers, she is drawn back to a sidewalk cafe on the Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, where people are smoking and discussing personal and political events "as if events were ours to rearrange/ with words[..]." Then back to her own childhood, her early experience with languages and language: "I pressed my face into the dog's warm fur/ whose heat and smell I learned by heart, while she/ receded into words I found for her." Then into a meditation about how words replace things, give an illusion of summing them up, create expectations which reality declines to fulfill, and yet themselves represent a reality that can be lost, as in the case of the grandmother ("It's all the words she said to me I miss"). Then come questions about the languages of the poet's parents and grandparents. Finally the poet (who seemed to be alone at the beginning of the poem) appears to be speaking with a "she" (a friend? a daughter? a double?) who "walks home/ across the Place du Marché Ste-Catherine." Once in her own room, this figure will "scribble down" the "cognates, questions, and parentheses" and become the imagined figure of "the schoolgirl at the window, whom I'm not." The poem's movement implies that the poet is only one vessel, so to speak, for a stream of language, consciousness, thought, which will pass through her to others. The final figure of the schoolgirl in the window is perhaps the reader, who will try in her own way to realize the aspirations which were the poet's: "thinking: she can, if anybody could."
This conclusion is of course not reassuring. What is in store for the schoolgirl: "Is there a yellow star sewn on her dress"? Moreover, the schoolgirl may not even exist; the conversation between the poet and the schoolgirl is only imagined. In "Again, the River" the poet will ask: "Who do we write books for -- our friends? our daughters?", thus questioning (as many have recently) the existence of poetry's audience; and the question takes on a further edge from the reminder in "Squares and Courtyards" that a poet's kith and kin are under no obligation to find her words helpful or meaningful. And while the figure at the window may still dream, the poet has found out that she will “get old (or not) and die” -- and also, by implication, that she "can"not, because no one "could."
So the poem becomes a repeated grasping after what slips away, and the book as a whole becomes an assemblage of images which at times seem less woven together than retained in juxtaposition on account of accidental collisions that marked the reporting self (like that terrible childhood accident that surfaces toward the end of the book, as if it were a kind of explanation for everything). No abstract meaning could subsume these details; that would go against the poet's fierce assertion of the unrepeatable uniqueness of each instant, each object, each person, as against the great void of nothingness and death. There is an anti-hierarchical insistence in the individual portraits of street people, which a structure of symbol, myth, archetype would only gloss over. But as a result, form too comes to seem permeable. The "squares and courtyards" of the poems, like the past and present moment, are not closed-off spaces but just eddies in the flow, nodes in the network. The traditional sonnet starts something and then finishes it, stands there as a Gestalt with a clear outline within which the details are balanced and interconnected. But in a sonnet like "And Bill and I imagined lives in France," the details contained within the form can seem like strangers who happen to be ascending or descending in the same elevator, each one more closely related to things outside the elevator (to analogous objects or moments in the book as a whole) than to the other passengers. But that is, we see, the form of contemporary life. Finally the work comes to seem like a single poem, a sign that Hacker has achieved, despite all the apparent fragmentation, a texture in which the details are, finally, at home. The associative flow dissolves the contour of individual poems, as it dissolves the poet's sense of being wholly at any point in spacetime; but it also connects the different points in spacetime, pulls them together and makes them part of the Now: "Every-/place/ is Here and is Today," as Paul Celan wrote in The No-One's-Rose.
Here and there a passage raises different questions. "Broceliande" harks back to an early interest in mythmaking and magic that is largely submerged here: "Yes, there is a vault in the ruined castle./ Yes, there is a woman waking beside the/ gleaming sword she drew from the stone of childhood." But this ironic compliance with a request for symbolism is soon deflated altogether: "Sometimes she inhabits the spiring cities/ architects project out of science fiction/ dreams, but she illuminates them with different/ voyages, visions:// with tomato plants, with the cat who answers/ when he's called, with music-hall lyrics, work-scarred hands on a steering wheel, the jeweled secret/ name of a lover." Again we are told that there are no great symbols, only the things that have meant most to one person and what those things tell us about that person, as a lover and activist. At the same time, the mythical world that has been invoked imbues these particular particulars with a slight magical aura: is the cat a familiar, is the jeweled secret name a charm? One thinks here of the powerful "Rune of the Finland Woman" in Assumptions (1985), or that early, splendid sestina, "An Alexandrite Pendant for My Mother," which didn't even make it into Selected Poems 1965-1990. One wonders if myth could return to this poetic universe. Myth is after all an organizing device, a source of power; don't the dispossessed need it too?
Related questions start up when one reads the following:
Suddenly, amid this scanning of a memory inflected by history, comes a statement that engages with the world polemically. In the Miltonic salvo of the fifth and sixth lines (one could imagine them as the closing couplet in a traditional sonnet), we are reminded that there is presently more at work than time and chance happening to all things: there is something actively at work against the nuanced world Hacker so lovingly invokes. The traditional poem, by coming to a sharp point, can supply the reader with ammunition (such as that couplet); its formal consistency has at certain times even helped readers to acquire consistency, to get their backs up and come together and offer a real resistance. (Example: Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children," which may have been of some use to the cause of labor reform.) Is then the decentered poetics of this book a poetics of resistance, or is it more a way of tentative survival while "waiting for the axe to fall," as "A Colleague" briefly suggests? Is an active resistance, over and above the acts of charity and generosity and loyalty which this book celebrates, still conceivable? Could the poet's wit and mythmaking skills be pitted more directly against the Dark Tower? But such questions indicate that the book's circle is not a closed one. Reading Squares and Courtyards, one has a sense of sharing in a struggle of life with death; and one puts it down fervently hoping that Hacker may live to one hundred and twenty.