Marilyn Hacker Hacker, Marilyn (Vol. 91) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marilyn Hacker Winter Numbers

Award: Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize

Born in 1942, Hacker is an American poet.

For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 9, 23, and 72.

The often painful exigencies of life and the inevitability of death are the subjects of Hacker's award-winning poetry collection, Winter Numbers (1994). Using traditional poetic forms and leavened with a sense of humor, Hacker writes about her daughter, homosexuality, her lovers, bigotry, the Holocaust, the AIDS crisis, and her breast cancer; this final subject is examined in the sequence of poems known as the "Cancer Winter" sonnets. Most critics have applauded the poetic maturity and thematic insight of Winter Numbers, noting in particular its structural craftsmanship, word images, and complex, multi-layered themes. As Grace Schulman observed, in Winter Numbers Hacker "is, paradoxically, less articulate than before. There are silences …, pauses, sudden turnings, juxtapositions that are more internalized, less explicit. She has deepened."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Presentation Piece (poetry) 1974
Separations (poetry) 1976
Taking Notice (poetry) 1980
Assumptions (poetry) 1985
Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (verse novel) 1986
Going Back to the River (poetry) 1990
The Hang-Glider's Daughter: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1990
Selected Poems: 1965–1990 (poetry) 1994
Winter Numbers (poetry) 1994

Grace Schulman (review date 7 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chiliastic Sapphic," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 259, No. 15, November 7, 1994, pp. 548-52.

[Schulman is an American educator, writer, poet, and critic. In the following excerpt, she favorably assesses the poetic style and themes of Winter Numbers.]

Marilyn Hacker's seventh book, Winter Numbers, strikes me as her strongest to date. From the beginning, she has used ironic antitheses, often yoking disparate entities ("Richter plays Bach. My baby daughter plays / with a Gauloise pack"; "Geographer"). Here, to darker ends, she sees discordances in a torn culture.

In "Chiliastic Sapphics," a new poem that links daily activity with world slaughter, the poet sits in her Paris apartment reading of tanks, aircraft carriers and suicide squadrons. Intermittently, she hears the honk of a wedding car, and, on a cassette, nuns singing the Kyrie. In "Street Scenes II," she writes of contradictions in her own neighborhood near the Marais, the Jewish quarter on the right bank:

The French Jews mostly disappeared
in forty-two: the Vélodrome d'Hiver,
Beane-la-Rolande, Drancy—then the trains.

Their street is being frosted to a myth.
The cowboy-boot boutique rubs doorsills with
a new shop selling Yemenite cassettes
and hand-painted Israeli seder plates.

Powerful are her outcries against injustice, in poems whose intensity often is offset by casual titles such as "August Journal" or "Days of 1992," their tone often a sardonic veil for despair: "So, carpe diem: eat, drink, fuck and write / to glean grace from these chiliastic days?" ("Letter to Julie in a New Decade"). My favorite of these poems is "Elysian Fields," in which the speaker, sitting at a New York cafe whose awning reads "Champs Elysées of Broadway," watches the...

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Matthew Rothschild (review date January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Winter Numbers, in The Progressive, Vol. 59, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 43-4.

[In the following excerpt, Rothschild favorably reviews Winter Numbers.]

This is the seventh volume of poems by Marilyn Hacker, who for the last few years was the editor—and a brilliant one at that—of The Kenyon Review. (It was she who brought Campo to my attention). But last summer she was cashiered, she told The Advocate, suspecting that her lesbian orientation and radical politics were too much for that tightly buttoned magazine—another brave moment in publishing.

Death stalks this book. The opening long poem, "Against Elegies," sets the tone from the very first lines:

James has cancer. Catherine has cancer.
Melvin has AIDS.
Whom will I call, and get no answer?

Halfway through the poem, Hacker mentions "the day I meet / the lump in my breast," and her cancer will return throughout the book. Intensely personal, this opening poem and others in the collection also reflect on the crimes of this century,

in which we made death humanly obscene
Soweto El Salvador Kurdistan
Armenia Shatila Baghdad Hanoi
Auschwitz. Each one, unique as our lives are,

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Lawrence Joseph (review date February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Formal Life: Marilyn Hacker's Deep Structure," in VLS, No. 132, February, 1995, p. 25.

[In the following excerpt, Joseph favorably reviews Winter Numbers, focusing on the "Cancer Winter" sonnets.]

[In Hacker's new book, Winter Numbers], the central motifs of her poetry—the inner and outer furies of the physical world, and the ways in which poetry embodies them—revolve around, simultaneously, the destruction of one's own body and that of the body politic. Hacker's voices are more mellifluously startling and alive than ever. Positing that "sound more than sense determines words I choose, / invention mutes intention," the book's dialogical contentions take you right in. Hacker has been doing this so well, and for so long, that you hardly realize what you're reading is major work. Especially powerful is the sonnet sequence, "Cancer Winter"—"Syllables shaped around the darkening day's / contours." The textured compression of physical detail, the sensual world loved down to its essential form in language—and note the rhyme:

        All I can know is the expanding moment,
        present, infinitesimal, infinite,
        in which the late sun enters without comment
        eight different sets of windows opposite.

"Words crystallize despite our lives," the poet writes. That's only partly true. In this expanding social moment, in the infinitely challenging human world of the poem, Hacker's poems crystallize our lives, too.

David Kirby (review date 12 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gald-Handing Her Way Through the World," in The New York Times Book Review, March 12, 1995, pp. 6-7.

[In the following excerpt, Kirby favorably assesses Winter Numbers, noting Hacker's "fluid" poetic style and her ability to handle ideas about death and middle age.]

The history of recent literature is the history of the phrase "Only connect." Writers and readers have taken these words from E. M. Forster's Howards End as an exhortation, with "only" meaning "merely" or perhaps "exclusively." But the phrase can also be read ironically, despairingly, even interrogatively, with a rising borscht belt intonation, so that "Only connect?" becomes "Are you kidding me?"

At a time when so many writers seem to be measuring life from a considerable remove, it is invigorating to watch Marilyn Hacker glad-handing her way through the world with a warm facility. And a formalism so colloquial as to undo any readerly stereotypes. Indeed, Ms. Hacker is the best friend of anyone trying to learn the writing of formal verse. There are no ticktock rhymes in her work; her use of enjambment, slant rhyme and metrical variation produces a line so lissome and fluid that, once engaged, the reader glides on as swiftly as a child in a water slide….

As the title of Ms. Hacker's latest book suggests, Winter Numbers takes both writer and reader into middle age and the...

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