Across the Page: Poetry Collections


Marilyn Hacker’s Desesperanto (Norton)

Moving out of the country and into the city, Marilyn
Hacker’s Desesperanto captures the
grit and magic of New York City and Paris the way Oliver uses nature and animals.
Though Hacker has been called a “radical formalist,” don’t let that scare you
off if sonnets and ghazals are not your thing: her voice is as contemporary and
urban as her themes.

The title of Hacker’s collection combines the Spanish word
esperanto, for hope, with the French word desespoir, for “to lose heart.” Many of the poems play off this combination
and what it means to have hope in another person, a city, or an ideal, and then
what it means to lose that sense of promise.

Desesperanto is divided into three sections — Vendanges, Itinerants, and Desesperanto — and
begins with a preface poem, “Elegy for a Solider,” dedicated to the late poet
June Jordan, where Hacker remembers the New York City that the women once
shared. The poem moves from “The city
where I knew you was swift” to “The city where I knew you is gone,” and refers
to the aftereffects of September Eleventh:

We have a Republican
mayor. Threats keep
citizens in line:
anthrax; suicide attacks.
A scar festers where towers once were;
Dissent festers unexpressed.

In another poem, “Embittered Elegy,” Hacker writes about
Matthew Shepard and Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was murdered by an anti-abortion
activist. In “Elegy for a Soldier,” Hacker uses the city to mourn the loss of
her friend, but here she centers on the classroom and the frustrations of
teaching perspective and, even more challenging, empathy:

Sheltered by womanhood and middle age
from their opinionated ignorance
since I’m their teacher, since they’re my students,
I try to wedge bars of their local cage
open…But what they’re freed to voice is rage
against every adjacent difference.

The middle section of the book, “Itinerants,” features
twenty sonnets that capture the city of Paris — the sounds, smells, tastes and
colors. In “On the Stairway,” Hacker
describes her seventy-year old neighbor, Mme Uyttebroeck, who “wears
champagne-froth lace sheaths above her knees/…like a striptease/ artiste who’s
forgotten whom she needs to please.”

The book’s third section, titled after the book, plays off
many of the themes from the previous two sections, including: grief (“grief
walks miles beside the polluted river”); Hacker’s two beloved cities (“December
fog condensed above the Seine,” “The Hudson saw my heart break”); and, of
course, love (“She took what wasn’t hers to take: desire”).

This is a rich collection of poetry and highly
recommended. Also check out Hacker’s
other books, particularly Love, Death,
and the Changing of the Seasons
(Arbor House) and Going Back to the River (Vintage Books), which received a Lambda
Literary Award.

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