Names, Marilyn Hacker
Nettles, Venus Khoury-Ghata, translated by Marilyn Hacker
from Women's Review of Books, July / August 2010
In an interview with Annie Finch, Marilyn Hacker quotes the first line of a sonnet by the Jamaican writer Claude McKay: "If we must die, let it not be like hogs." Hacker explains that this line, copied out in pencil, had turned up in the pocket of one of the inmates during the famous rebellion at New York state's Attica prison in 1971. Hacker invokes the prisoner and McKay as examples of the kinds of isolated and disenfranchised people who have seized on poetry in fixed forms to speak about their suffering. For those who are not acquainted with Hacker's work, I offer this incident as a thumbnail portrait of a woman who wrote her first sonnet at age twelve and entered New York University at age fifteen. She is erudite, in the best sense of that word, and politically engaged.
I've followed Hacker's career as a writer in fixed forms from its inception, beginning with Presentation Piece (1974). I've taught Assumptions (1985) in graduate seminars in the eighties; floated in the sonnet boats of Love, Death and the Changing Seasons (1995); experienced political solidarity reading Desesperanto (2005); and quoted for students her ironically all-American examples of iambic pentameter lines: "a double burger and a side of fries"; or, if you prefer, "a glass of California Chardonnay."
Now comes Names, which foregrounds her passionate concern about twentieth and twenty-first century wars and their victims, as well as her continuing engagement with poetic form. In an online interview (firstname.lastname@example.org), she describes her use of Hayden Carruth's invention of a form he called the "paragraph" in her tribute to him, "Paragraphs for Hayden":
The "paragraph," despite a name that makes it sound like a prose poem, is a fairly complex form. As Hayden Carruth used and described it, it is a fifteen-line poem, which, like a sonnet, can either stand alone or work in sequence. It has a fixed rhyme scheme and a fixed variation in the number of stresses per line. It is accentual rather than accentual-syllabic, though there is quite a bit of not necessarily inadvertent iambic pentameter in most of them.
Asked if her poem is narrative, Hacker replies:
There are several narratives and dialogues being negotiated here. The little girl in Gaza is at the heart of the poem, and yet she is cut off from "dialogue," telling her story and her indignation to an unseen interlocutor. The question of desire (and of disease) is left open-ended. The girl's anger, and the deliberately unspecified (not to embroider on a reality as far as I could observe it) situation reverberate from everything else evoked (including the language in which I might understand her) but remain painfully separate.
In poem after poem Hacker records her impressions of and friendships with other poets, prisoners, and activists female and male, living in "painfully separate," fraught landscapes such as Gaza, Lebanon, Algeria, and Stalinist Russia. The title poem of this collection features a linked series of portraits of women caught in war's net, with Hacker as interlocutor. The poem evokes impermanence, as cultures around the earth go on breaking apart, disintegrating. Ours is a time "at the storm center of emergency / where there is no coherent narrative." Even " ... the elegies get worn/ away, attrition crumbles them .... " Our names, she writes, will be "erased, a cloud the wind dissolves .... "
Like Hacker, the women who appear in this eight-sonnet sequence also write about women living through war. In Edinburgh airport Hacker bids farewell to a writer from Damascus, then concludes:
I emailed her. I haven't heard from her.
The war had started five days earlier.
Part four of this poem describes a restaurant gathering of "divergencies":
Palestinian Syrian, Lebanese,
Russian, expat Jewish American.
The line following comments in strict iambic pentameter and understatement: "A new war had begun that afternoon." Hacker also evokes war's frightening and dulling monotony with four bold iambs:
Through the cracked prism of Al-Andalus
we witness, mourning what we never had.
(The war goes on and on and on and on.)
Imagine Hacker with a coffee of a morning, reading the Manchester Guardian, getting the news that fuels her poems. Her subject is the present planetary disintegration, but she counters and balances this with what is grounding—watching sunrise, drinking a glass of wine, the dailiness of "letters typed on a computer screen." In the book's first section, Lauds, Hacker urges us to "inhabit daylight, unfurl where it's found / filtering through the curtain," and to enjoy "a dozen plump / oysters of hours, plate of a winter day / embossed with cloudy gilt chinoiserie." Though "disaster is inexorable somewhere," she counters with "dependable black coffee at Le Sancerre." The poems juxtapose polar opposites—embodiment and disintegration, creation and destruction. And though those daily coffees, those "letters typed on a computer screen" are anchors, they are also ironic comments on the fact that war has become so prevalent that it seems ordinary, a staple like salt or milk.
We live, inevitably it seems, with ambivalence. In "Ghazal: dar al-harb" Hacker laments her country's contradictory policies toward the rest of the planet: we are a nation of immigrants, yet our government discriminates against immigrants; we are reputed to be a democratic and friendly people, yet, Hacker says, "millions have reason to fear and hate my country." She has mastered, out of necessity, the ironic lament:
Where will justice and peace get the forged passports
it seems they'll need to infiltrate my country?
Hacker has a longstanding commitment to rendering nuanced portraits of women's lives. In an ambitious, three-page poem about Anna Akhrnatova, Hacker reminds us that women from all levels and classes must still invent their own ways of surviving and even flourishing. She describes Akhamatova's upperclass, privileged background and renders the difficulties faced by this prominent woman writer in Stalinist Russia.
She and her friends and lovers chiseled lyrics
until the decade (what did they think of revolution?)
caught up with them, the elegant companions,
and set them a different exercise.
Though Akhamatova hoped to secure her son's release from prison by writing poems praising Stalin, he spent his youth in gulags. In a moment of bitterness, he called his mother "superficial." In Hacker's poem's final lines, she salutes Akhamatova's quotidian perseverance beside thousands of other mothers:
The impatient butterfly of Tsarskoye Selo,
a solid matron, stood below the frozen
walls, with her permitted package, like the others—
whether they had been doting or neglectful
Hacker's description of Akhamatova as "solid" plays down whatever privilege she may have enjoyed and aligns her with the other women's classless dignity. And since perfect mothering is impossible, the final line's "doting or neglectful" reverberates as ironic—mothers, after all, are inevitably both.
Hacker can occasionally seem a bit arch, as in this aside: (Over the ranch / in Texas what smoke rises in premon-/ itory pillar?) She also has a bag of favorite words which recur through her oeuvre—polyglot, maculate, divagations, exigent, prelapsarian, chinoiserie. Critics may skewer her for too often resorting to these familiars, but who would deny any writer the word "palimpsest"? Besides, she's absolved by the third section of "Paragraphs for Hayden," which describes in simple, straightforward language a six-year-old Gazan girl beside an empty cradle of burnt blankets.
Hacker will be remembered for her instinct to balance what's fraught with what's reassuring. Hence her nimble, graceful yoking of war, exile, and the persistence of human hatred with our desire to see sunrise and sunset, to tear a bite of bread from the loaf. She's a crier of disaster who then counters it, reminding us of our longing for kettle and cup, light and descending dark, some wine, a pen. She renders life's inbreaths and outbreaths and, in accepting both, walks the Middle Way.
Hacker also has a number of translations to her credit, the latest of which is a new and selected collection entitled Nettles, by the novelist and poet Venus Khoury-Ghata. Born in a village in northern Lebanon in 1937, Khoury-Ghata has lived since 1972 in France and published twenty novels and sixteen collections of poetry. Nettles contains poems from an earlier collection, as well as an evocative new sequence, "The Darkened Ones," written during Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon.
Khoury-Ghata's experience as a novelist has acquainted her with metafiction, those authorial asides that comment on the process of writing, and she introduces this into the section called Nettles. "Blackening pages till words exhaust themselves and this character emerges, whom I'm seeing for the first time," she writes. "I park him in the middle of the line/ between a verb and an object." A second character
.. .isn't long in coming
It's visible in the ripples that ruffle
He slips you the password NETTLES
to make my task easier
Then Khoury-Ghata announces a third character:
your main character
the one who holds the strings, on
whom everything converges
This third character is based on Khoury-Ghata's dead mother, a woman "in her faded apron/ a washrag in one hand / her dignity in the other."
An old woman bent right down to the ground
pulls out with her bare hands
the nettle which has sprouted on the page,
then throws it in the margin ....
Death, Hacker writes in her introduction to Nettles, "becomes another mode of life, an ironic one carried on six feet below our surfaces." The dead mother's house has "a door but no walls/ a wind but no windows." In a real yet imaginary burial ground, the old woman pulls up nettles, those "old acquaintances/ acrimonious neighbors lacking all grace whom she took in out of charity."
This "was yesterday/ it was long ago ... .it was elsewhere," the text asserts. The old woman is dead, but just as Gabriel Garcia Marquez suspends temporal parameters, Khoury-Ghata suspends spatial ones, placing her characters in landscapes where the usual verities don't hold. In this dreamscape the reader is transported by Khoury-Ghata's surreal imagery:
A long time ago
she owned a house with its plot of ocean
a roof with its share of wind.
There were seagulls instead of a dog
Like other metafictionists, Khoury-Ghata enters the poem now and again to comment. In an aside, she describes war's mutilation of language and truth's attempt at camouflage:
I say knowledge so as not to say terror
so as not to say retreat underground.
The dead, she tells us, "nourish themselves on the smell of our bread, drink the steam rising from our water, live on our noises." Having established this shifting terrain, Khoury-Ghata describes the Palestinian diaspora in Lebanon as "men who came from the wounded side of the river, knocked on our borders .... "
They arrived every night of every year
Their trees on leashes
Their children planted at the foot of their
They dug their trenches in our bedrooms
Stretched their rifles out in our beds
Squatted on our sidewalks for the length of a man's life
For the length of shame
Nettles' one new sequence, The Darkened Ones, is twenty haunting pages written during the 2006 war:
We had shut ourselves out of the air's shapeless space
for a ground eager to fill its hollows with
bones rags barking
The Darkened Ones were
... treated like ghosts
entitled to use only the sound of light
the shadow of noise
a door in a drawing.
Khoury-Ghata's surreal imagery honors the verbal shape-shifting in Arabic tales, comparing it to magic realism, in which "angels may converse with sign-painters and a pomegranate tree hang about a housewife's back door like a recalcitrant child." The dreamscape imagery arouses pathos:
No one here helps a fallen house to get up
No one wrings out flooded gardens
They fraternize with a passing tree
In which pocket did I put my tears?
The poet's description of the war-ravaged earth as an abandoned wasteland where ghosts and disembodied shades wander is moving and affecting. Though the language of dreamscape buffers emotion, we feel ourselves pulled forward, rising to meet the poem's intensity. This, Khoury-Ghata, tells us, is what war feels like to those who experience it, who ever afterward are marked by its passage.
Khoury-Ghata's work is cautionary. She would take us by the hand, say look at suffering, see it in all its extravagant degradation. But, like Hacker, she also provides an antidote to suffering, namely the spiritual realm and its balm. "They say the glaciers are heartless," she writes, "but they melt at the mere sight of a daisy." Hail to this driven writer's fluid prose, in which "a white silk blouse flaps its wings."
About the Author
Marilyn Krysl has published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Dinner With Osama won Foreword Magazine's Bronze Prize for Best Short Story Collection 2008, and Swear the Burning Vow: Selected and New Poems appeared in 2009. Visit her website, marilynkrysl.com.
Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College
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