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  • A Brilliant Mirror
  • Walter Hess (bio)
A Stranger’s Mirror
Marilyn Hacker
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
320 Pages; Print, $29.95

Marilyn Hacker is one of our country’s foremost poets and translators—from the French. She is also a great teacher, editor, and discoverer of fresh talent. But mostly, she’s admired as a poet, one who now lives as an ex-patriot in Paris.

Alicia Ostriker has written in Persimmon Tree (2012):

What strikes me most about Marilyn Hacker’s poetry is that it’s a poetry of passionate engagement. Emotionally open to others and to the Other, politically engaged, reaching out beyond poetic cliques to the “one life within us and abroad,” as Shelley says. Marilyn’s poetry embodies a tension between a highly artful formalism and the instincts of a rule-breaker. And yes, she writes in meter and takes pleasure in the exigencies of difficult forms.

Stranger’s Mirror (2015) includes runes, rengas, a monorhyme, crowns of sonnets, stanzas of variable-syllable line-lengths, ghazals, sestinas, joyous off-rhymes, sapphics. [End Page 18]

Professor Ostriker continues:

Like John Donne, she writes conversationally, roughly rather than smoothly, as a mode of resistance to authority and an expression of pent-up energy. Her early work was praised for its bold representations of sexuality, and it was once customary for critics to remark how remarkable it was that Marilyn could write about sex in sonnets and sestinas.

It is remarkable, but it’s just a beginning. Marilyn’s insistence on writing inside the box and outside the box at the same time has let her write about food, about bohemian life in New York and Paris, and later on, about being a Jew, about having a mastectomy, about lesbianism, about friendship, motherhood, youth and age, the ethnic makeup of the streets of Paris, the horror of our country’s wars. Her tone is somehow both casual and intense, and always brimming with intelligence.

The title poem, “A Stranger’s Mirror,” among others, encapsulates that tone. Within many there is a palpable struggle with time. One crown of sonnets begins with a replay of a conversation held in “another century,” where the poet tells us that she has become, “…an inadvertent archeologist,” where she uncovers the layered aspects of herself, where the discoveries are the creaks of aging, where a body becomes both a festival and a house of mourning, and where a graying woman reflects on present passions and past desires, enacted or imagined. At one point the poet is depressed because:

The words she wants are in some padlocked boxwhose combination she’s incapableof calling from the incoherent babbleof panic and despair…

But the reader should not despair. The words do come, and there is a far reaching delight in them because the hard forms glitter, and the content provokes truths that we need to encounter.

The very first poem in the book, “Casting Out Rhymes” glitters within its specific form: a monorhyme. The five line stanzas are controlled by the steady end rhyme pattern, and the two lead words give it a rhetorical balance and strength. The monorhyme enjoys a long tradition that reaches back to the Arabic and the middle ages, but Hacker shakes up the tradition by placing a YES in front of each line of the first stanza, a NO in front of each line of the second stanza, and so on. By the third stanza, the rhyme scheme begins to evolve into more common five-line patterns, and by the seventh the evolution has touched the Yesses and Nos by switching from one to the other at each succeeding line. My friend, Bob Burr suspects that many poets, at some point, need to invent a form of their own to complement all the received forms they have used.

This volume is composed of several sets of poems. There are new poems, a set of translations, and selected poems, which are gathered from four earlier volumes and make up the largest group. Thumb through the selects, stop anywhere, and find useful news. “Against Elegies” is the first poem in the...


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pp. 18-19
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