Strangers and Friends

Grace Schulman

A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2013. By Marilyn Hacker. New York: Norton, 2015. 300 pages. $29.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

It is a commonplace that good poems can bridge cultures even when the cultures themselves continue to be at loggerheads. Marilyn Hacker’s new poetry collection, A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2013, fulfills that promise, answering Whitman’s call for “an internationality of languages.” The author, who recently has become an expert in the Arabic language and culture, is an American Jewish poet who had described herself earlier in lines famous to poetry readers as “Another Jewish Lesbian in France.”

Hacker is the author of some fifteen poetry collections, not including translations. A Stranger’s Mirror is a compendium from four books appearing since 1994, constituting the late period of the poet’s oeuvre. In it, some seventy pages of new poems carry forward her attraction to Arabic, a language she has been studying in Paris, where she lives. The venture has enabled Hacker, an accomplished translator of French poetry, to widen her field. It emphasizes the largeness of her work, and deepens her sense of self. Most important, it has taken her to the people she has befriended, telling their stories, plumbing their memories:

She lives in Beitunia
And her name is Sahar
Her name is the hour
Between sunrise and morning.
      “Sahar al-Beitunia”

One of Hacker’s tutors is a Syrian revolutionary, Fadwa Soleiman, now a political refugee in Paris. Soleiman, the dedicatee of Hacker’s “Pantoum,” is “the insurgent, now an exile.” Hacker, who has written enticing erotic poems, now movingly shows forth her empathetic closeness to the women she admires, as in “Sapphics in Winter”:

You’re already elsewhere, redeemed from exile,
blue-green eyes assessing the slack and blemish
as I kiss you back to the intifada–
kissed at a distance.

Her vision of unity is especially meaningful in the light of the rootedness she still feels about herself and her country, as well as her identification as a Jew. Gathered here are poems that deal powerfully with anti-Semitism, such as “The Boy,” to whom “boys shouted Jew! across the park / at him when he was coming home from school.” Living in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of Paris, she asks what her neighbors did when gendarmes came “Jew-hunting in this Jewish arrondissement” in her “Days of 1992,” with its epigraph from Alfred Corn’s “Somerset Alcaics,” “Pray for the souls of the antisemites.” She writes of ancestors not suffering pogroms and death camps but “strokes and heart attacks, / merely immigrants, not deportees.”

A Stranger’s Mirror appears shortly after Diaspo/Renga (Holland Park, 2014), her collaborative work with Deema K. Shehabi. The renga was inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza, Hacker’s partner a Californian born of Palestinian parents. In it the two voices blend in and out of one another, picking up a word, an image, a line, from the poem preceding. The dialogue becomes a monologue in “Syria Renga,” which contains parts that hadn’t appeared in Diaspo/Renga. Those additions to the renga, the continuous enlargement of the long poem, express in form the unending world tragedy of the Gaza trials.

Exile is the word repeated constantly in the “Syria Renga,” as in Hacker’s entire opus. In the renga, it comes up as “inadvertent exiles,” “safe in exile,” and a Syrian boy in England who hadn’t planned to go back, “nor thought he was in exile.” The word becomes a theme. It is not new for her, nor is it confined to current events in the Middle East. The poet has written of exiles since the beginning, in poems not represented in this new collection. In her first book, Presentation Piece, the noun “exile” comes up in a title and in many lines about troubadours, navigators, wanderers like herself. Later, “exile” describes the lesbian poet who is worldly but estranged in London, Paris, and New York. Moving to Paris, she comes to terms with the “unimportant exiled Jew,” a contemplative woman who sees “syllables shaped around the darkening day’s contours.”

I first met Marilyn Hacker in 1974, after hearing in her poems a voice that was simultaneously elegant and lowdown, cranky and lyrical. Then as now, I was dazzled by her mastery of received forms–sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, canzones, pantoums, ballades, gloses, sapphic stanzas, alcaics, and, latterly, ghazals. And more. Indeed, she exhibits so great a mastery that it is not surprising to read a Hacker villanelle or sestina without realizing that it is one. Early and late, she uses colloquial, even demotic, language, with an ear for slang, street talk, nuance, and argo. She furthers the currency of old forms by noticing all she can of the contemporary world, determined to include everything from “a tugboat / with embroidered curtains and gardened windows” (“Again, the River”) to

a voluble immigrant family
. . . unwrapping garlicky
sausages—an unshaven man and his two
red-eared sons.
      “Desesperanto”

Hacker plays with fixed meters as though skipping rope. She jumps, ducks under, teasing the rope but never hitting it head-on. She dances with the iambic line: “I’m leaving you. There is nobody else. / She lied she lied she lied she lied she lied” (“Chanson de la Mal Aimée”). She writes in alcaics what you might think could never be said in alcaics. A recipe for a perfect omelette, in twelve sapphics stanzas. A literary conversation (watch the wit, the human gesture):

      His green-eyed architect companion
      died in the spring. He is frank about his

grief, as he savors spiced pumpkin soup, and a
sliced rare filet. We’ll see the next decade in
      or not. This one retains its flavor.
      “Her new book . . .” “ . . .brilliant!” “She slept with”                                           “. . .Really!”
      “Days of 1994: Alexandrians”

The title poem of this book is a sonnet crown in which the poet gazes unflinchingly at herself in elder years. The rhythms are easier, the hilarity toned down, the metrical play interrupted:

Alone, and with a choice of alphabet
she did not reconstruct the repartee,
at once anodyne and intimate,
nor pause at her stacked desk to contemplate
disaster she might well precipitate
if her neck were smooth. If she had breasts.

Her focus on the body in earlier work, especially in love poems, is muted here, changing to a relentless search for the naked self. Gone are the distractions of urban life, the bon mots, the masks and disguises of café conversations. Her hard look at the world, its politics and terrors, leads inward, to ponder “the ravenous mythology / in which she’s exiled from her own desire, / reflected strangely, in a stranger’s mirror.” Contemplating otherness, she sees her own life in plain view.

Marilyn Hacker is a major poet who has earned, among her many prizes, the National Book Award, the Lenore Marshall Prize, and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Herself a spiritual exile, she sympathizes with other exiles, historical, political, social. Like all great poets, she transcends the very material she collects and alters. Her true quest is for language that will realize the stranger, and, in doing so, unify the self.

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