Names by Marilyn Hacker (W.W. Norton)
“How are you American?”
Marilyn Hacker is an American poet with deep roots in Europe and friendships with poets, living and dead, past and present, in places like Pakistan, St. Petersburg, and Paris. English is this poet’s mother tongue, but as she says, “it travels” (51). An American by “language, economic determination” (68), she has New York City, where she studies Arabic in a café with the young Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi; but as a Jew, she also has diaspora. Given that in the years of the second Bush presidency with war in Iraq and Afghanistan,
‘God Bless America’ would be blasphemy
if there were a god concerned with humanity (50)
the poet longs for asylum or exile—but where is there a place on earth not torn by war or oppressed by despots?
Names is in part a ghazal of longing for a better—more just—country than the one “our” America has become. Even if you do not share Hacker’s vision of justice, these poems are well worth the effort in their power of imagery and metaphor, in their skill and complexity of form. Names is also a book about writing—words, names—and about the Writer’s Life—the risk, danger, and sacrifice. It’s about the daily lives of those who choose not simply to experience life, but to distill that experience. Against the diasporan poet’s need to travel, there is a corresponding need for “staying put” that
Provides the solidest
Comfort as daylight diminishes at four:
The street becomes, again, a palimpsest
Of hours, days, months and years that came before
And what is better was, and what is best
Will be its distillation. (21)
She is aware of the power and misuse of power writers wield, when “a speechwriter drafts the ukase / which, broadcast to a military base, / sends children and their city up in flames.” (31) Of the large cast of writers in Names, each has a mission, whether it’s the Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine, or the novelist Nathalie Sarraute working underground as a journalist for the French Resistance. Above all, Hacker connects to the political and personal risks of speaking out—exile, imprisonment, death—as well as the paranoia of living in a repressive society. Hacker imagines the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova memorizing “the words we read and burn, nights when we read and / burn with the words unsaid // as we watch / and are watched // Is / the winter trees’ rustling a code // ?” (36)
It is not only the writer who speaks out, of course. Hacker celebrates the protest of a Palestinian child:
Five, six—the righteous,
The child in green in Gaza
Stands in her wrecked home,
Grubby, indignant. Her hands
Point; she explains what was done
Bombed, burned. “It all smells
Like gas. We had to throw our clothes
Away! The earrings my
Father gave me! No martyr,
Resistant. The burnt cradle. . . (61)
The cast of poets and writers in these cosmopolitan, urbane poems is large, multinational and multiethnic—Lebanese, Russian, or Iranian; French, Belgian, Berber, or American. All have fought in some way for the repression under which they have lived. And nowhere is Hacker more moving, perhaps, than on the plight of the Palestinians. In “For Despina” (the daughter born when Poseidon rapes Demeter in myth), the poet is asked How are you a Jew? And she answers,
First, because I haven’t the choice to not be.
. . .
How am I a Jew? Through my mother’s birthright,
Turned into a death warrant once (66)
“How are you American?” she asks later in the poem. And the answer: “Language, economic determination. . . / Once, it was lucky.” (68)
Ennui, too, afflicts the writer’s life: the boredom of waiting for recognition or for inspiration: “What follows when imagination’s not inspired by waiting, / body and spirit rendered sick and tired by waiting?” (34) For the writer, “Another morning opens up its hand / on loss and possibility at once” while outside “her study window / blackbirds preen on iridescent water.” (40)
Even the poetic forms of Names have diverse pedigrees. Twelve poems are ghazals, an ancient Persian poetic form, and half that number are translations with accompanying glosses. In addition to Akhmatova, we encounter Kateb Yacine, an Algerian writer notable for his advocacy of the Algerian Berber cause; and the Belgian poet Guy Goffette whose poems Hacker has translated. Names is dedicated to three poets who died in 2008—Hayden Carruth, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and the African-American poet Reginald Shepherd—and one ghazal is written in memory of the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, imprisoned for his stand against bloodshed in Bangladesh in the 1950s.
In “Ghazal: In Summer,” dedicated to the Iranian born poet Mimi Khalvati and set in a hot, beleaguered Middle Eastern oligarchy, probably Tehran, Hacker follows the traditional ghazal rhythm (if not meter) and rhyme:
Not in a tank but a golf cart rides the oligarch:
However, he does not dismiss his staff in summer.
Let them not, in Maryam’s name or Marilyn’s,
Blot any cindered city off a graph in summer. (15)
In the first couplet, both lines end in the rhyme and refrain; the rhyme scheme is aa ba ca for five or more loosely connected couplets. The second line of each couplet ends with a refrain of one or a few words, preceded by a rhyme. Hacker, who translates from the French where couplets are commonplace, may have come to the ghazals easily.
Even when the poet’s sipping coffee in Le Sancerre in Paris, “disaster is inexorable somewhere. . . no more contained by meter than by dependable black coffee.“ The poet has a keen sense of ominous military presence; even a couple of cops on a Parisian street outside her window make her jittery.
If they imagine women forget dead babies
In those countries, they don’t imagine war across the street. (19)
She notes the incongruity of parades in war-torn countries, where “the desperate parade / stagnates, as if blocked traffic stood for war, / as if death in the street were something new, / while new parades clear avenues for war.” (28)
Yet she finds the beauty amidst the terror. For Akhmatova, with her “mass graves of compromising manuscripts,” the willow was “bare like a silver brooch on a sky of fox fur / during the winters of famine and deportations.”  And from “the Year of the Dragon,” Hacker translates Emmanuel Moses’s lines, “The rampart behind the leprosarium: / That also is Jerusalem.” (54)
These poems are urbane, world-wise and world weary, but also morally biting, at times epigrammatic, and not the least jaded. In “Ghazal: Nothing,” she muses wryly:
Thyme and cornflowers, blackberries, figs hanging over the wall:
Late summer harvest of those who grow nothing.
What have you been doing in your room for three hours
With the door locked, blinds drawn, music blaring? Oh, nothing.
At the center of the paisley swirl,
The heart of the elaborate intaglio: nothing. (57)
Classical Persian ghazals, and even some modern variations, are built around the central theme of love, separation and loss, as Hacker’s ghazals are, as well, in the desire for a world and a country without bloodshed and injustice, without the thirst for vengeance. For a poet whose friends are dispersed across the globe, the ghazal titled in Arabic—“kana bahrun m’a beini wa beiniki”—“there is an ocean between us”—states a literal and emotional truth on several levels:
The morning light spells its name on my white coffee cup
But it aches with absence: there is an ocean between us. (43)
There is not only the distance between the poet and her friend or lover; there is the distance separating diverse cultures—countries and religions and clans at war. The aching with absence is the ache for a beloved husband or brother or daughter, fallen in war across the ocean, and it is the ache of the mystics, and major poets like Marilyn Hacker, for a truer world.
Zara Raab’s poems and literary journalism have appeared in Flash, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, and major newspapers such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her Book of Gretel is published by Finishing Line Press.