rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Read August 6th.

Marilyn Hacker has been one of my favorite poets for a very, very long time. She has the voice that I enjoy most in poetry, the voice which combines formalism and vernacular speech so thoroughly that she is the only writer I know who has perpetrated stealth sestinas. I mean it. There are poems of hers I knew and knew well for years before I noticed they were actually sestinas. She writes forms not usual in English, also: canzone (really! without cheating!), pantoum, rondelet. And she writes them so well that they stick. She adds to the emotional vocabulary of the heart.

I love her early work the most, because it is where I see this fusion best of her technique and content. Later she rhymes less. But her earlier work is harder to locate. So though there are many pieces in this collection which I have met in one context or another, there are also many which were new to me. And what was new to me also is the throughline, since this is the entirety of her first three collections printed in publication order. When you see the individual poems in anthologies you do not realize how much you can tell about her biography by seeing them in order, that there are so many poems dedicated to a particular love affair, a particular friendship. I knew her spectacular 'Geographer', an elegiac poem for a friend and sometime lover which evokes grief so sharply I can't read it very often-- here is the first stanza-- )

-- with its incredible long crescendo build that ends quietly in 'Now you have visited too many cities'. I didn't know she'd written another poem for him a long while earlier, when he was still alive, called 'City', about travel and freedom and the prospects they have being young together and the ways old hurts still hurt. Running across the two, published in two different books and now not many pages apart in the same one, is a blow, and a sharp-edged thing that makes you remember time: those pages are years.

There is something, maybe, to reading a writer chronologically.

Some of these poems are of course minor, and a few are outright juvenilia (I wish my own work before twenty looked like that). At her worst Hacker is discipline without content, a person sitting down and saying 'I will write a sonnet' without having anything to write a sonnet about; there is at least one poem in here that is exactly and precisely that, and admits to it, it says so right there in the sonnet. She is sometimes as cryptic and allusive as a poet writing about the current events of her own life is entitled to be, which makes for frustration for a later reader. She will go to any lengths of syntax to avoid cheating in those canzones, and I think it is all grammatical but I would hate to have to parse it, meaning it takes a few blinking look-back-overs when the verse is in a particularly awkward interval.

At her best she is incandescent, indelible, clear without losing layers, rhythmic without losing real speech. Her phrases hang in the memory: 'To get this far, just this far/ we have become precisely what we are.' She is a brilliant poet of grief, a good one of the blazingly erotic, and a cheerfully silly one on her daughter's fifth birthday and when faced with a light-up letterboard that can't do certain letters. I am delighted to have these three books in one, to hand, away from that limbo marked Dead Out Of Print.

Oh, here, have an entire poem. This one I managed to notice was a sestina upon first acquaintance. )


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