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

Death Speaks: Mark Danowsky on The Letter from Death by Lillian Moats

The Letter from Death, Lillian Moats, Illustrations by David J. Moat, Forward by Howard Zinn, Three Arts Press, 2009

Death finds a voice and gets right up on its high horse to put us meager humans in our place. From this height, Death’s Letter takes the tone of a moralistic edict, with a severely didactic approach, in a rant about the human condition.

That’s right. In this text Death is no abstraction but rather a sentient being not unlike us.

The Letter begins with a history of humanity’s treatment of death by various civilizations. Death then notes that readers will inevitably be wary of picking up this text for fear of being labeled “morbid”.

It seems like Death has finally decided to speak up because we have given the notion of death such a bad name. According to Death, “the fact that you [humans] will one day cease to exist is what you have turned your world upside-down to avoid.” (66)

Apparently, Death has grown over eons of dealing with humanity, particularly encountering us in the end stages of life—and in turn Death has learned lots about human nature. For instance, Death understands that humans are not always good natured when we get together in groups.

Death reminds us of the importance of trying to understand the perspective of others, writing: “It must be your isolation that makes you susceptible to distortions about humanity at large—such as the conclusion that violent aggression is hopelessly hard-wired into human nature.” (85) War is a motif throughout the Letter as well as the idea that we are our own worst enemy, however, to the dismay of Death we have a habit of deferring the blame for our own misdeeds onto hir.

“In the spreading wars over resources, I see no inevitable Armageddon”, says Death, “just another unnecessary Hell advancing on earth.” (84) There is abundant mention of hell in this text as Death reflects on the curious way we choose to think beyond death to the afterlife—and furthermore, we worry about it.

Death believes it is our fear of dying that has led to our present western conception about the nature of death: “The torments you feared from your gods, you’ve devised for your enemies, and have realized for yourselves.” (54) Here Death presents the idea of dying as non-linear, that it “occurs with a simultaneity unimaginable for you who are so bound by time.” (89)

We differ from animals, according to Death, because from an early age we live by narrative and do so in order to explain “ourself to ourself” and to others. We maintain a sense of stability by creating continuity in our lifestyles. Death also denigrates the modern western notion that humans are somehow above all other animals. In Section XVII, Death explains: “The differences I detect between you and other animals do not amount to superiority or inferiority.” (115)

Interesting apothegms are scattered throughout this Letter making it a thought provoking quick read. Just be sure your mind is open and your mood is right.

Why read this text?

What first drew me to Moats’ Letter was the premise: Death speaks. I’ve given some thought to when a person might actually think—hey, this is exactly the kind of text I want to read right now— and my answer is, well, multifaceted. I think my difficultly comes from the genre bending that occurs in the text. Here we have a letter, with mingling social and political statements, told from the perspective of a westernized other worldly, or should I say beyond worldly being. It’s academic in its treatment of the history surrounding the substance, i.e. death, and Moats even provides an extensive list of sources in a reference section—certainly atypical for a fictional text. Reading this text in a classroom setting I can definitely see. Reading this at the beach I can vaguely see myself doing. But the rest of you will have to take a moment to reflect, and consider what sort of situation is most appropriate to sit back, put up your feet, and consider the possibility of death.

More thoughts…

The premise of an embodied Death, who is omnipresent and worldly, who transcends our human time and space, is intriguing—however, Moats’ tries to make this idea carry the whole text. Unfortunately, the overall text reads flat and Death never steps down from the podium. The tone is also academic to a fault. I find myself wishing there was less history and more fantasy. I definitely buy that if Death was going to speak up, war mongering, terrorism, and nuclear weapons are justifiable reasons for doing so—but the mere notion of Death speaking to us is a leap that could use some more context, if only inklings.

MACHINATIONS OF A BLACK SABBATICAL: Mark Danowsky on Brett Eugene Ralph’s Black Sabbatical

Black Sabbatical, Brett Eugene Ralph, Sarabande Books

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”.
-Dr. Johnson

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
-Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Brett Eugene Ralph’s poetry collection “Black Sabbatical”, addresses a cross-section of subcultures in American’s Derby Country, and is as readable for the doomed as it is for the intellectual aristocracy. In these works, Ralph juxtaposes the flowery language typical of canonical works with the crassness of the everyday. In so doing the author expands his readership to a wider audience.

This back and forth between the borderline highfalutin and the commonplace is exemplified in works like “Real Numbers” where Ralph seems to poke fun at the poet’s tendency toward Romantic tones as he writes: “I squatted, a hunter wondering / just what my buddy’d bagged / in that Bardo of deep freeze / and cinder block, of pipes / resurrected by duct tape, an ancient / latticework of webs … In order words, / we snorted crystal meth / right off the concrete steps. / God knows the slivers, / how much grit, / which inscrutable organism / I invited in” and so forth. In his “Acknowledgements”, Ralph notes that the passage introducing “Real Numbers” is from a book of sayings about the Buddha adding yet another point of contrast, in this case, the religious angle.

Keeping in mind the beastliness of humanity I wonder what Ralph is getting at when in “Great Horned Visitation” he writes, “But what are we / that such magnificent creatures have to die / before they’ll let us touch them.” Sounds to me like a poignant truth, but not at all surprising when one takes under considerations some of the actions by humans in Ralph’s other poems within the collection. Take for instance the beginning of the very next poem, chronologically, in the collection, “Tell City”, which begins: “Somebody stripped / the bark from the trees. It’s worse / than being burned. For reasons / we needn’t go into / I’m assuming it was a man.” Another example comes from “Mudra”, in which Ralph writes, “I saw myself speckled with blood and Pepsi, saw the gashes this machine would make as I dismantled it with my hands.” Sometimes the beastliness is fully realized as when a boy named Junior is said to be “obliterating mailboxes with a bat” in another piece titled “Reindeer Games”

Some of the lines in these poems are almost casual, off-hand comments. At times they are explanatory, but almost as if the author is pleading with the reader to understand his position. Other comments give the impression that he may be muttering or trailing off—a sort of afterthought that he could not bear to part with. There are obvious similarities between Ralph’s poetic voice appear in the lyrical style of his country rock ensemble “Brett Eugene Ralph’s Kentucky Chrome Revue” (BERKCR), which likewise allows Ralph to regale us with stories. Whether on paper or voiced, Ralph appears just as comfortable tossing about off-hand comments—but somehow these asides seem much more natural in latter format. Another reader noted the way these comments often begin as clichés and then catch you off guard. This twist comes in the form of reality to ground the false certitude that lies in the cliché.

In Black Sabbatical, the reader follows the poet thru a maze of imagery as he pieces together recollected memories, mulls his life choices, his struggles, and begins to reconcile past experiences with his ideal self. Although plainly he’s found himself in precarious scenarios, he is also a teacher, a musician, and a poet—a balance not many of us are fortunate enough to maintain.