Marilyn Hacker’s A Stranger’s Mirror is an extraordinary book. A book which runs to 288 pages, and which is a selected from just twenty years’ worth of writing. The poems must pour out of Hacker as if there were no tomorrow. And there is a highly charged, highly pressured feel to all of this writing; because the poetry emerges from the junction of three lay lines of poetry: formal brilliance, an extraordinary feel for the balance and tension between the demotic and the lyric, and, finally, a real sense of engagement.
The formal brilliance which has always been present in Hacker’s writing is shown in this book by the profusion of ghazals, but there is formal rhymed verse, and beautiful free verse. And where with others form seems a kind of crutch offering the next line, this is clearly not the case with Hacker for whom form is a way of moving and controlling the pressure that drives her poems. “Paragraphs from a Daybook” is a set of fifteen-liners which move in and out of quatrains. The subject matter as the title might suggest a diary quality to these pieces and that is true, but the pieces are never “throw-away.” The sequence achieves the difficult trick of describing the quotidian but without reducing it to reportage. In the first of the sequence, Hacker describes the homeless she sees around Paris, “I talk with one: tall, stained teeth, arched nose and cheekbones | like Norman gentry. She’s soft-spoken | as a fifth grade teacher, who’d have shown | me fluvial maps, and pointed out the human | scale of geography.”
That last quotation illustrates some of Hacker’s style, with its careful laying down of the sentence. And Pound did suggest that the sentence was actually the basic unit of the poem. In the poem, “Quai Saint-Bernard,” Hacker controls the movement of the poem in end-stopped quatrains, but that pausing never feels contrived or heavy because she is so good at moving the contents in sentences, “Three German students nap on their sleeping bags, | backpacks and water bottles niched next to them, | up on the slope of lawn beside the | playground, as safe as suburban puppies.” And the break between the definite article and “playground” actually lifts “the” more into consciousness of the reader and increases the emphasis on “playground.”
The engagement which animates and drives this book is of various kinds, which might be summed up in that rather pallid, contemporary phrase, a commitment to “social justice.” Hacker is clearly concerned with what we might characterise as “feminist issues.” However, she is ultimately concerned with the humanity in us all and the clawing away at the humanity by forces both natural and unnatural. Illness and aging figure throughout the book: the loss of a breast to cancer, and the near loss of her friend, the poet Hayden Carruth, to heart disease, “Old heart, old curmudgeon, | old genius, terrified old man | who more than anyone knows form is one rampart of sanity,” Elsewhere, she writes precisely and forensically about the effect of war on the lives it tears apart. In in the magnificent “Pantoum,” Hacker assumes the voice of those dispossessed by conflict in the Middle East. “That man I last saw speaking in front of the clock tower | turned an anonymous corner and disappeared, | Five years after I knew I’d have no more children | my oldest son was called up for the army, | turned an anonymous corner and disappeared.”
This a large book which has its moments of sprawl. But it’s a book which is often essential reading. Marilyn Hacker is a poet who faces up to considerable personal and social trauma and renders it both graceful and beautiful, with delicacy and warmth.