No 12 - Autumn 2007
Departures and Silences
Review of Marilyn Hacker, Kerry Hardie, Louise Glück, Jane Hirshfield
Marilyn Hacker: Essays on Departure: New and Selected Poems 1980-2005. Manchester: Carcanet (Oxford Poets), 2006. 188 pp. ISBN 978-1- 903039-78-6, £12.95 pb.
Kerry Hardie: The Silence Came Close. Oldcastle: Gallery, 2006. ISBN 978-1-85235-408-4, £11.95 pb.
Louise Glück: Averno. Manchester: Carcanet, 2006. 96 pp. ISBN 978-1-857548-37-2, £9.95 pb.
Jane Hirshfield: After. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2006. 104 pp. ISBN 978-1-85224-741-6, £8.95 pb.
These four volumes by four very different poets are able to transform personal observations into universal truths that the reader would do well to consider incorporating within the fabric of his or her life. However, readers should not waste time reading Essays on Departure unless they are prepared to invest considerable mental energy, to do otherwise would be somewhat synonymous to the proverbial casting of pearls before swine. Here are “words / tempered and stroked” a lifetime of intellectual engagement away from “the woman who sent you her Tone Poem, who'd like / her admiration praised.” (“Feeling and Form”).
In this age where accessibility – often to the point of dumming down – is frequently the keyword, Hacker is definitely not a fashionista. Yes, you will find simple everyday language that refers to the minutiae of the poet's life, lovers, neighbours, cafes, sex, death and food. “For once, I hardly noticed what I ate / (salmon and broccoli and Saint-Verain)” (“Runaways cafe 11”). Yet this is not the indulgence of a self-obsessed woman ruminating on mundane moments heightened by a new love, to which we can all relate, rather it is the exultation in presenting those very moments in the tight constraint of metre which illuminates both the language and the experience.
Hacker's pre-occupations are not merely with the intimate incidents in her life, her personal morality, in being fortunate to own two homes and ocean-hop or being “another Jewish Lesbian in France” (“Graffiti from the Gare Saint-Manque”). Rather they are imbued with a universality which is firmly rooted within the world of Kosovo, Aids, the Holocaust, cancer, the morality of the American invasion of Iraq etc. This public domain is approached through, and infused by, a very private one whether in letters to friends (Julie, p. 84; Hayden, p. 159) or through the closely observed intimate world of Parisian Squares and Courtyards.
Hardie's domain in The Silence Came Close ranges from Ireland to Australia via Europe and China but throughout the five sections of her book the voice remains true, the observations and connections finely wrought. “Threads. It's all about paying attention and following where they lead.” (“Up There”). Everyday pleasures suffused with colour dominate “Harmony”, the first section, whether it's “A small perfect tree / its leaves green and gold” (“The Birch Tree”), “The lone bull / red on an emerald ground.” (“Near Loughrea”) or “A slow file of cows // under a blaze of white light” (“Flood”).
Simplicity of language and imagery impact and freshness “the air high and clean” (“Flesh”) is resonant throughout. Here we have the large-eyed wonderment of a child where nothing is taken for granted, everything commented upon: such delight may also be felt after a near-death encounter and perhaps this is indicated by “maybe there's more to life than sickness, / than the body's craving for oblivion,” (“Flesh”). It is this fusion of childlike awe with adult experience of pain that makes the ordinary compelling reading.
In contrast to the warmth of “Harmony” the second section “Strife and Conflict” opens with “Each day it grows colder.” The bleakness of this statement, emphasised by the strong caesura, indicates the landscape in which the poet is travelling. Even incidents which begin “bellies filled, laughing” (“Catalan Politics”) end in a civil war: a war which, for some, was followed by years of hard labour and whose effects remain pervasive until death “ancient eyes which are still seeing things / he doesn't want to be seeing.” (“Guerra Civil”).
Death also pervades Glück's Averno. Through the myth of Persephone, used by the ancients to attempt to understand the natural rhythms of the seasons, Glück explores different levels of being. Relationships between mother and daughter, mother and lover, the daughter caught between both – “the daughter is just meat” (“Persephone the Wanderer”) – are interposed with fundamental questions regarding being and not being; “maybe just not being is simply enough, / hard as that is to imagine.” So ends the delicate “Night Migrations”, which, set apart from the two main sections, opens a book in which the reader will encounter a complexity of issues of universal concern.
Glück has previously questioned her own place within her family, within her world and Averno returns once again to these questions. “My memory is like a basement filled with old papers:” (“Fugue”). Her poetry is driven by the attempt to reach resolution, whether she is adopting the persona of Persephone, the lost soul, her mother the revenge-seeking Demeter or the lustful, yet to a certain extent conciliating, Hades.
Attempting to reconcile Persephone to life in hell, he replicates the world and the heavens but then gradually removes the stars, moon and all light, naming this new state “Persephone's Girlhood” – thinking to please her! Yet even he realises love is not a protection from hurt “so he [Hades] says in the end / you’re dead, nothing can hurt you / which seems to him/a more promising beginning, more true.” (“A Myth of Devotion”). Glück's quest for honesty remains paramount.
Nevertheless, one shouldn't expect slick answers from her, rather she is an unsentimental observer on what has happened: “violence has changed me. / My body has grown cold like the stripped fields; / now there is only my mind, cautious and wary, / with the sense it is being tested” (“October 2”). Loss pervades the book, loss of innocence, personal worth, filial love, one's home, even belief in the divinity of gods.
Inevitably her characters may be seen, somewhat, as simply a vehicle for Glück to explore inherent dilemmas, dilemmas fused with urgency now that the poet has reached maturity and needing to assess her legacy to the world “didn't we plant seeds, /weren't we necessary to the earth,” (“October 1”).
For Jane Hirshfield each minute being is necessary to and connected with the earth. It is this connection with, and empathy for, the whole of life that imbues the poetry with a mystical instantaneousness. Each moment of life, each small everyday occurrence is embedded within the metaphysical. “When the cat waits in the path-hedge, / no cell of her body is not waiting // one shadow fully at ease inside another.” Throughout Hirshfield?s poems there is a powerful sense of being and a being beyond the purely physical yet a being grounded
within the physical.
Hardie also sees the transcendental in the everyday and this spiritual element pervades the book whether it is a peacock “the rattle of God in his thighs” (“A Peacock at La Cartuja”) or a diving cormorant, which if they had left the scene, “… would have been / like spitting in the face of God.” (“Derrynane '05”). Hardie's poems revel in familiar images, intensity of colour and the divinity of nature but she is able to restrain from forcing the reader to acknowledge such phenomenon. Rather she simply presents the image.
However, Hirshfield's fascination with inter-relatedness does occasionally lead the poet to over-clarify her position. In “Dog Still Barking at Midnight” (Is the title a reference to the poet returning yet again to her preoccupations?) three ants “… seemingly separate, seemingly aimless” rove her shelves and, although very vulnerable “none turns to the others for reassurance or warmth. / In their cold bodies; calcium, carbon, a trace of nickel.” Such an ending would allow the reader to voluntarily inhabit the experience of the poet, whereas the additional closing couplet appears desperate for identification. “Inexhaustible solitude, how did you come so far / to waver on the slim antennae of these my sisters?”
Far more open-ended are the seventeen “Pebbles” – a series of short prose poems which, given the fine-dividing line between prose poems and prose, fall sometimes more on the latter than the former. However, this is a moot point and the epigrammatic “Pebbles” certainly engage the reader.
The prose passages – and they do appear to be prose vignettes rather than prose poems – Hardie employs in the first two sections of her book, “Harmony and Strife and Conflict”, could seemingly be interchangeable. In “Strife” the passage is set in Eastern Europe, implicitly grim, yet describes the complicit relationship of two women washing hands. Conversely, the prose passage in “Harmony” opens with a domestic scene which rapidly deteriorates into one that is infused with wariness. Both passages end upon a salutary note.
The third section “In the Middle” is just that – the humdrum of everyday life without extremities. This is not to say that the writing has lost its sense of wonder “Strange visitors, / come to us out of marvellous lands,” (“February Snow”) and there is death but it is a death surrounded by love “I only knew you were gone / when I heard the clicking of the closing door?” (“Mrs. George Departs”). Is this a summation of Hardie's technique? Engrossing the reader with images that lead to the poem's conclusion, not with a fanfare of trumpets but with the finality of a click “of a door closing”.
Hacker's technique is partially based upon the subject matter reinforcing the forms which she employs, whether in sonnet sequences or a repetitive last line (“Scars on Paper: Ballad of Ladies Lost and Found; etc”). Her themes recur both between and within poems which, in a lesser poet, may well lead to monotony. Essays on Departure – and remember these poems are drawn from twenty-five years of poetic output – maintains its freshness through the breath-taking syntactical dexterity with which she manipulates language, metrics and form often subverting them to her own ends.
For Hacker, above all, is a metrist and formalist. Throughout Essays on Departure one is treated to a feast of pantoums. alexandrians, sapphics, gloses, sonnets and ghazals. The latter, witty and tightly constructed, differ entirely from the translucent simplicity of the original Arabic conception although she is conscious of indebtedness i.e. to Faiz Ahmed Faiz (“Ghazal: The Beloved”). However, the question arises whether, because of her strict adherence to metre, the form is so tightly corseted that it falters through lack of air into abrupt line endings or even stanza breaks. Hence, whilst one may smile at the cheekiness of splitting “khak/i” because of the humorous manner in which the poet is presenting herself “in a paint-spattered Black Watch shirt, old khak- / i workpants, one long braid straight down my back” (“The River Merchant's Wife”) yet the frequency with which this device is employed often interrupts both the enjoyment and flow of the poem. Whether this 'jarring' is a deliberate attempt to ensure that the reader does not merely read the poems but ponders upon the inherent craftsmanship or whether it is signalling that Hacker regards herself above convention, is debatable – though one suspects that such a question is on par with whether or not Picasso can draw because he chooses to place an eye, say, somewhere in the navel region. (The book's title, of course, could be indicative of this intent to depart from more conventional line breaks.)
The title of Hirshfield's After refers to that period after she had experienced the deaths of many of those whom she held closest. It was also written in the wake of 9/11, an event that emphasised how little humans are able to exercise control over their lives, a theme that pre-occupies the poet. “Those who cannot act will suffer too. // Even the bystanders vanish – / one by one, / peripheral, in pain unnoticed while” (“Those Who Cannot Act”). In omitting to 'complete' the poem Hirshfield allows room for other agencies to interact, to connect.
Hirshfield has a very modest, almost self-effacing voice. This does not diminish her poetry but is indicative of the precise balance with which she regards life from ants to Rembrandt, badgers to Chinese poets and loved ones. The ability to take a very small thing, e.g. the word 'and', and in a very short space transform it into that which has profound implications, is noticeable but perhaps particularly in the Assays interspersed throughout the book. True to their titles, these poems analyse such matters as Articulation, Tears, Hope and even prepositions such as Of, To, And. “Before disappears. /After transforms into others. / 'And' – that strong rock – stays standing. / Undevourable thus of connection. Even death spits it back.” ('And': An Assay”). Each Assay neither adds nor detracts but through careful consideration weighs the particular word with finesse.
Gluck also has the ability to attribute exact measures – the exact measure of language to the requisite thought or emotion. Never hyperbolic, her lyrics move fluidly, illuminating each conflict or predicament. Her control extends not only to her words but also to the space that she allows around them – as illustrated below. She is master of permitting the unsaid to more than complement the actually expressed: of following each nuance of thought, indicating each hesitation in approaching a perplexity simply through punctuation, lineation and stanza breaks.
because it wasn't true; I
distorted it –
Whilst Hirshfield and Hardie forge links between the earthly and spiritual, between insects and humans, Hacker delights in association with other poets, of their work often being the well-spring from which her own creativity flows. Through her dedications, translations and gloses we glimpse Hacker the metrist, the formalist, is also the 'humanist'. In her “Letter to Mimi Khalvati”, essentially a birthday wish, Hacker incorporates the transitory nature of their meetings, touches upon their mutual history, “a lucky pair of outcasts” and pays homage to Khalvati's work, “… silver's brilliance on velvety / shapes in the no-man's land between alphabets / you were obliged to cross and cross to / write in the white ink of exiled childhood.” – a reference to Khalvati's poem “Writing Letters (The Chine)” and her first collection In White Ink.
So over “cakes or curries” are these two most eminent poets lost in the esoteric regions of linguistic philosophy or do they, like any middle-aged women, discuss their kids? Read Essays on Departure. In fact, read all four volumes and you will begin to see “Yet words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.” (“After Long Silence” in After).
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The