Squares and Courtyards, Marilyn Hacker’s ninth collection of poetry, is a moving and satisfying book of gracefully crafted poems. Although her topics center on loss, disease, and death, the poems work through levels of sadness and obstacle to celebrate hard-won glimpses of possibility.
Hacker is one of the best known of contemporary poets, and her work has been recognized with numerous prizes and awards. Her collectionWinter Numbers (1994) won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and a Lambda Literary Award; she received other honors including the National Book Award, the Bernard F. Connors Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. Editor ofThe Kenyon Review from 1990 until 1994, she also edited Thirteenth Moon, a feminist literary journal, The Little Magazine, Quark, and a special issue of Ploughshares. Her editing has been characterized by a fruitful effort to open up journals to subjects and ideologies not thought of as mainstream. Raised in the Bronx, Hacker was soon aware of the prejudices and exclusions prevalent in the United States in the 1950’s: Her parents were the first in their families to go to college, but were barred from many professional jobs in New York because they were Jews. In her poetry Hacker attacks and exposes prejudice and the many obvious and subtle forms it takes.
Hacker’s experiences as a resident of two very different urban centers—New York (where she served as director of the creative writing program at the City College of New York) and Paris—are overwhelmingly present in her work, providing the “squares and courtyards” where lives take shape, flourish, and end in her poems. The title poem links Paris and New York and other cities of Hacker’s life in a shifting narrative that traces the relationship between self and history. These are intriguing poems of place, and yet they are not travel poems or regional poems—they are more like tapestries that weave person and place and history and the present into a single seamless fabric.
Although she is an outspoken political activist, Hacker writes poetry that is nevertheless poetry first. She uses received and invented forms to communicate thoughts and impressions both universal and particular. The politics of her poetry are effective because they are organic to the poems; the poetry of the work is not garnish for politics. Often the forms seem more flexible than they actually turn out to be, if the reader traces them attentively, because they do not draw attention to themselves. Some forms are more obvious, such as the haiku sequence and the crowns of sonnets, but even there the form seems gently directive rather than controlling.
Squares and Courtyards uses a variety of forms including the haiku, sonnet sequences, sapphic verse, and less commonly known patterns, some of recent invention, to celebrate and mourn memorable and memoir-worthy individuals. The poems seem to surge within the forms like the sea in its tides, the emotion within the poem unobtrusively contained. What makes these poems appealing to those who are ordinarily not readers of formal poetry is their apparent ease and lack of strain, which is complemented by precision of language and image.
These poems have a lot of pain in them, particularly but not exclusively women’s pain. Breast cancer looms large, and the poems on this subject speak of and to the increasing number of women who undergo treatment, are returned to their lives, and find their world transformed by the experience itself and by the realization that they cannot know for sure that the cancer will not recur. Most live but some do not, and this awareness underscores daily experiences and reconfigures relationships. The reader is made aware of breast cancer not with an icon, but with an irony-tinged epigram instead in “A Colleague”:
Head in my office, one foot in the hall,
she poised her briefcase—briefly—on a shelf.
“We’re all just waiting for the axe to fall.
I ought to have a mammogram myself.”
Yet one of the most memorable poems here is about the death of a man, a street person. In “Street Scenes: Sunday Evening,” Monsieur Guy has died of cold, and in the church his friends stand out in sharp contrast to the comfortable bourgeois churchgoers. The opening lines set the scene directly and unsentimentally:
Flowers at the plinth, curbside, said he wouldn’t be back—
a bucket of red tulips, with a sign:
he died the night...
(The entire section is 1871 words.)