Speaking Erasure: Mark Danowsky on Marilyn Hacker’s Names

Names, Marilyn Hacker, W. W. Norton, 2009

Marilyn Hacker went on a trip to the Middle East and recorded her experiences in “Names.” In this collection, Hacker works to find a female voice within traditional literary forms to show that not only can this voice be found, but that it can prevail. In an interview with Karla Hammond, Hacker explains that any literary form is problematic for the female artist/writer as it has been created under a patriarchal system, society. In Hacker’s own words “a woman in patriarchy is always on enemy territory, or at least territory not her own.”

One of Hacker’s goals is to find the female voice that has been neglected throughout history. She speaks of the “erasure of women” and explains that women writers “are reclaiming the idea that a poet is speaking to and for other people.” Hacker is troubled by the way that poets, especially male poets, have a tendency to focus on their personal lives in a self-fulfilling manner. She discusses how the feminist writers of today cannot allow themselves to be distracted by self-reflection and other egocentric interests because there is a higher cause, once again, to speak to others and for others who do not have a voice.

In the collection, Hacker works with several traditional forms. Glose or glosa is a style which dates back to the late 14th century. Glosa traditionally begins with a short passage of up to four lines called a cabeza or texte that is borrowed from a well-known poet or poem. In this case, Hacker has done her own translation of lines from international poets and uses them as carbeza. As is traditional with the form, these lines make repeated appearances within the body of the poem. Another style Hacker works with is called ghazal, which was traditionally used in countries such as Persia and throughout South Asia.

Hacker has said that she “like[s] the tension in a poem that comes from the diction of ordinary speech playing against a form.” She goes on to explain how these “traditional forms or, for that matter, invented forms aren’t in any way inimical to women’s poetry, feminist poetry, or contemporary poetry.”

Some might think it is surprisingly or at least challenging for a writer who is a professed feminist to work within the patriarchal construct of traditional forms, but perhaps Hacker feels it is the very act of finding her voice amidst these constraints that ignites the feminist spirit.

A Taste of “Names”

The title poem “Names” has a more uninhibited feel than the other works in this collection. There is a sincerity in its diction and the manner in which is presented to the reader, not hidden behind a veil of metaphor:

from “Names”

A giant poplar shades the summer square.
Breakfast shift done, Reem smooths her kinky mass
of auburn curls, walks outside, her leaf-print dress
green shadow on post-millennial bright air.
It’s almost noon. I smell of sweat. I smell
despite Bain-moussant and deodorant,
crumpled and aging, while recognizant
of luck, to be, today, perennial
appreciating trees. The sky is clear
as this in Gaza and Guantánamo
about which I know just enough to mourn
yesterday’s dead. The elegies get worn
away, attrition crumbles them into
chasm or quicklime of a turning year.

Some of the excerpts Hacker chooses for her “Glose” poems I found of particular interest in and of themselves. In a section from “Nettles” by Venus Khoury-Ghata, Hacker translates, “the death of a sparrow has blackened the snow / But nothing consoled her / Who is the night among all nights? she asked the owl / but the owl doesn’t think / the owl knows.”

from “Glose”

No dark god was there, and no god of light.
There are women and men, cruel or fallible.
No mild friend picked up the telephone at the right
moment; some Someone was unavailable.
The morning which paled from an uneventful night
would have been ordinary, except that she chose.
Interrogate the hours, invent some oracle
flying overhead, read fate into its flight.
We think the snow was blackened by dead sparrows,
but the owl doesn’t think; the owl knows.

from “Ghazal: Across the Street”, which I found to be one of the better of its kind begins:

Three cops-what are they waiting for across the street?
I’d make some quip, but you’re not with me, or across the

Sedentary traveler, facing my window
blinds rise on provinces I still explore across the street.

Who’ll move into the newly renovated four-room
flat (opposite mine) on the fourth floor across the street?

I bought Le Monde late afternoons at the newsstand
replaced by one more pricey menswear store across the