By Marilyn Hacker
Original Publisher: Viking Press
Current Publisher: Out of Print but available in a new collection, First Cities: Collected Early Poems, 1960-1979: Presentation Piece, Separations, Taking Notice.
Megan Snyder-Camp writes:
Marilyn Hacker’s debut collection, Presentation Piece, published in 1974 when the poet was just 31, awarded the Lamont Poetry Prize in addition to the National Book Award, is a stunningly tight and bold collection of formal poems. Hacker is especially drawn to the villanelle and the sestina, two demanding French forms composed of prescribed, rotating sequences. Hacker’s structure and her engagement with the edges of formal limitations is also what her work is about—what drives the work is an urgency as sexual and vital as it is formal and precise.
Formalist women poets have few historical models, unlike the near-overwhelming canon of formal poetry written by men. Some feminist poets, like Annie Finch and Marilyn Hacker, see this historical lack of critical attention as an opportunity for contemporary women poets to make tracks in the open field, liberated from the burden of influence. As Annie Finch notes in her 2005 essay “Female Tradition as Feminist Innovation,” “Formalism presents us not with big stale husks but small growing seedlings, not the discouragement of huge closed books but the challenge of open, relatively empty pages.”
The brilliance of Hacker’s debut is not that she emerged as a master of formal verse, or that the content of her poems fearlessly and inventively merges intimate, literary, and political territory, both of which are true. Her brilliance is how she truly weds form and content, forging a startling and compelling link between the polyglot and the polyamorous. The turning, and chafing, against the almost-too-tight formal constraints in which she situates her work are met with imagery that is physical, sexual, bloody. Here are poems about threesomes, assaults, war, suicide—poems that ask, as in the title poem, “Bite / on your lip; do you taste what I do?”
In addition to the internal repetition and accretion that mark the villanelles and sestinas, Hacker often carries a word or phrase from one poem to the next, so not only each poem but also each section, and the collection as a whole, foregrounds this turning, snowballing motion of the thing examined, turned in the hand, considered, changed. Hacker’s mind on the page moves quickly, doubles back, shifts. At times she is of two minds at once, or so it can seem from her ability to cast a repeated word or image in starkly different light. What often emerges from her torqued refrains is a new, third thing, made by the arc of our reach.
Presentation Piece introduces many of the themes that would become central to Hacker’s poetry. Exile, as an actual gulf between home and refuge, and as Hacker’s interior engagement with what binds the perennial and the polyglot, is at the center of one of the book’s first poems, “Exiles,” which depicts the distance in an intimate relationship between two women. It opens:
Her brown falcon perches above the sink
as steaming water forks over my hands.
Below the wrists they shrivel and turn pink.
I am in exile in my own land.
Wry humor provides a counterpoint to the intensity of much of Hacker’s work, as in this passage from “She Bitches About Boys”:
but I, for one, have had a bellyful
of giving reassurances and obvious
advice with scrambled eggs and cereal;
then bad debts, broken dates, and lecherous
onanistic dreams of estival
nights when some high-strung, well-hung, penurious
boy, not knowing what he’d get, could be more generous.
Hacker’s poems engage language as tangibly as they do the body. In the poem “Cities,” for example, she writes, “There was a word like a lozenge on your tongue / and words buzzing the height of the darkening room,” and, in “Forage Sestina,” “Words will peel off you, revealing the structure / of a human body branched with wires.” Or this, from “Nightsong”: “it’s not my fault that you are beautiful / as a refrigerator full of words.” Hacker’s concern with structure and skeleton is mirrored in her interest in maps, travel, and the movement between languages. In her inventive “Imaginary Translation” series, Hacker speaks directly to the reader—“You know the plot, how the traveler, / too rich or too poor..”—through the gauze of unfixed voices and narrators.
“Polyglot” is a word that Hacker uses often, referring not just to the languages she slips between—English/French, married/polyamorous, heterosexual/lesbian, academic/streetwise—but also the way that she stretches pairings into triangles, suggesting a third possibility when offered a choice between two. In this way her work enacts the social and political activism of which she speaks; her refusal to take simply what is offered, her blueprint for inventing that necessary, elusive third thing, and teaching it to sing in harmony with the earlier duality, is nothing short of revolutionary.
Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work. (Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- A.R. Ammons for Sphere
- John Balaban for After Our War
- Albert Goldbarth for Jan. 31
- Richard Howard for Two-Part Inventions
- Josephine Jacobsen for The Shade-Seller
- Michael Ryan for Threats Instead of Trees
- Susan Fromberg Schaeffer for Granite Lady
- David Wagoner for Sleeping in the Woods
- Reed Whittemore for The Mother's Breast and the Father's House
Poetry Judges that Year:
- Karl Malkoff, L.E. Sissman, Mona Van Duyn
The Year in Literature:
- Turtle Island by Gary Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Marily Hacker was born in the Bronx, NY in 1942.
- Hacker is also an award-winning translator.
- In 2009, Hacker won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation and the Robert Fagles Translation Prize for her work on King of a Hundred Horsemen by Marie Étienne.
- Marilyn Hacker's 1975 National Book Award Acceptance Speech for Presentation Piece
- Hacker's profile at Poets.org.
- Poetry Foundation's Hacker profile
Buy the Book