4 Poetry Collections Every Lesbian Should Read

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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