Names, by Marilyn Hacker.
W.W. Norton. $23.95.
Upgraded to Serious, by Heather McHugh.
Copper Canyon Press. $22.00.
Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same, and it’s all for the good. That’s what I like to feel about some of our more established poets—poets with longevity, let’s say—who have been writing reliably for decades, delivering what are now imminently knowable products. It’s the rare poet who doesn’t repeat himself over the course of a lengthy career; one thinks of Yeats and Bishop as two who didn’t. But others, like Dickinson and Charles Wright, have spent lifetimes following their chosen forms down the proverbial rabbit hole. These poets teach us that repetition is not necessarily the death of poetry: when figured as refrain, repetition spells its lifeblood. And sometimes the most resonant echoes can almost seem to sediment our consciousness as readers and writers. This is surely the case with the work of Marilyn Hacker and Heather McHugh—two very different poets, both born in the forties, and both with substantial poetic capital.
Hacker has long been a chronicler of both social life and fixed poetic forms. Soon after Adrienne Rich abandoned rhyme and meter in order to write more “freely” of lesbian feminist politics, Hacker was delivering the details of that life within the very forms that Rich had disqualified. In Hacker’s sonnets and villanelles, lesbians had messy breakups, bought underwear at Bloomingdale’s, and were more interested in their sex lives than in “trying to talk with a man,” in Rich’s confrontational terms. Despite its sometimes diaristic feel, this more pedestrian content actually was politically canny: as we look back on it now from our own era of gay marriage (at least in some states), Hacker’s early work feels ahead of its time, even as its use of form was a conscious nod to anachronism. In addition—in conjunction, really—Hacker has always been a New York City poet at heart: think O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” funneled into a whip-smart Shakespearean sonnet. The sociability of the New York School has never been far from her sensibilities.
Life has become less heady in Names, her thirteenth book, and some of the most effective poems here emerge from moments of solitude. But on the other hand, the poet seems to circulate as much as ever. She has long conversations with friends, drinks what must be stomach-curdling amounts of tea, and just gets out a lot in the neighborhoods of New York and Paris, between which she “divides her time”:
Eight years later, still on the street
eight years older, two women squabble
and survive improbably.
A dark-haired boy, pale, imperturbable
sits in front of Monoprix,
wrapped in blankets, stroking a silvery cat.
Your voice begins to slip away from me.
—From “Paragraphs for Hayden”
The polyglot cleverness of the rhyme, the flash of callow street detail, the considered and then winked adverb (“improbably”), the curt turn to near-sentiment in the last line: all of this is vintage Hacker. The clear-eyed tuning of it feels almost inimitable—or perhaps imminently imitable, which is always the other side of the coin for a fully-executed voice.
Hacker does her best formal work when she’s operating from within the purview of a “local habitation,” bifurcated as it may be. But due to her wider travel and prolific translation career, she has become something of a world citizen, and Names nurses palpable ambitions in the global arena. As the circumference of her interest grows, so too can a certain fuzziness (“disaster is inexorable somewhere”). Many of her concerns about Palestine or the Iraq war are addressed to friends and confidants like Alfred Corn and the late Hayden Carruth; while reading these, I couldn’t help but consider the fragile, nearly extinct formality of the “letter poem,” a cornerstone in Names. In contrast to the Flarf and e-mail poets—for the latter category, Noah Eli Gordon’s work comes to mind—Hacker still lives the more pensive life we associate with handwritten missive, or at least she simulates it in her poems. And the epistolary genre really does suggest, often movingly, the abiding ties between people. (“Friendship is my muse,” I once heard Eleanor Wilner say; and I think Hacker might agree.)
At times, though, Hacker’s cosmopolitanism has adversely affected her formal choices. Like so many others these days, she has fallen under the spell of the ghazal, and the book contains too many of them. This Persian form has become the multicultural flavor of the month for many poets who are formally-minded, and it’s a very tough nut to crack in English. Hacker is no more immune to this linguistic weakness than anyone else, as shown in lines like the following: “I might wish, like any citizen to celebrate my country/but millions have reason to fear and hate my country.” In short, there are some poems here that read like outtakes from Poets Against the War (“the war goes on and on and on and on”).
Ultimately, however, dividing one’s time may be the true motor of this book, as one of its section titles—“An Ocean Between Us”—suggests. From that perspective, Names is the latest installment in the life-chronicle of a poet who makes sure to live “poetically,” even as she’s writing conversationally. What I mean is that from Stein to Cavafy to Eliot, ideas of exile and the expatriate have loomed large in our collective imagination of the poet, if not always the poetry, of the earlier twentieth century; and Hacker self-styles as an inheritor of this condition. Walking the boulevards, writing letters, sitting in cafes: Hacker is nothing if not the lonely-but-loquacious expatriate poet of yore. (“Asylum, exile?” she asks rhetorically at one point.) Such brooding privilege can irritate, to be sure, but it will be a sad day indeed when this genre of poetic persona has vanished from our cultural life. For all of her progressivism, Hacker sometimes reminds me of Newland Archer at the end of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: “Just tell her I’m old-fashioned.” Old-fashioned now means late twentieth century, and to say that Hacker belongs there is far from an insult. On the contrary, I’m grateful that this slower style of life—in the age of blogging, Twitter, and Facebook—is still being lived by a poet who stands her ground. Or better yet—who flies blithely and even fiercely in the face of everything faster:
Why not, waiting, write in the spiral notebook:
birds, remembered bullets, the rooftop terrace
pots of bougainvillea?
* * *
In contrast, Heather McHugh keeps her living arrangements out of her poems in Upgraded to Serious. She’s much more interested in the torqued aphorism, the deft rejoinder, and the musically derived thought-string than in any detailing of urban or social life. It’s fitting, then, that the book’s first poem (after its proem) opens with the maddening duck-rabbit line, “One as is as another as”; here, McHugh both upends and inflates Stevens’s “intricate evasions of as” before the book even begins. Clearly, this is a poet who both milks and suspects language. As she put it in an earlier volume, A World of Difference, “Always I have to resist / the language I have / to love.” Such resistance can be acerbic, but it also allows for grace notes of empathy in unexpected places:
The chain’s too short: the dog’s at pains
to reach a sheaf of shade. One half a squirrel’s
whirling there, upon the interstate.
—From “No Sex for Priests”
As these lines also show, acute internal rhyme is the technical bedrock of McHugh’s poetry—not unlike the work of our current poet laureate, Kay Ryan, whose aphoristic bent is both slyer and gentler than what we see in McHugh’s output.
McHugh’s work is performative to a fault—that is to say, we watch in fascination as the poet’s neurons fire strenuously at the speed of sound. In this capacity, she’s a genuine heir to Dickinson and Moore; at the level of syntactic flexibility, her poems can be thrilling. Witness, for example, the whiplash insight of the last punning sentence in “Leaf-Litter on Rock Face”:
takes some leaving
to a stonish spirit.
How many tropes from Lanham’s Handlist of Rhetorical Terms could be unpacked from these three lines? Don’t worry, we won’t enumerate them here. But branches rock; the leaves leave—then blood from a stone in the spiritual sense: a-stonish-ing. McHugh is a syntactic acrobat—and has become, if anything, only more acrobatic over the course of her career (in an interesting reversal of, well, life). In fact, she reminds me less of flesh-and-blood acrobats than of the paradoxical “Dance Forms,” a computer program used by the late Merce Cunningham to choreograph his dances. On Cunningham’s screen, electronic dancers streamlined into wiry, incandescent gesture. In that virtual economy—and in this poetic one—nothing is extraneous. McHugh’s poems “click shut,” as Yeats would say.
To be sure, McHugh’s technique is dazzlingly gratifying in what often feels like a world of loose, baggy poems and lazy lines. She delivers custom-made precisely what the smart reader wants in a poem. Yet if there is a weakness in the work, it may well be the seed of that very strength; the arduous jockeying palls after a while. In those moments, I sense less acrobat, more chorus line. This effect is a by-product of the on-your-toes “pitch” of this poetry, and precisely what often keeps it from “resist[ing] the intelligence / Almost successfully,” again in the words of Stevens. If McHugh resists language, as we’ve noted, she never resists intelligence. On the contrary, she wants to exercise it, to train it—and, at times, to put it in the circus. I appreciate this, and I’m sure my neurons do; but it means that her poems function best as cerebral workouts, even when they’re elegies.
This is partially due to the effects of McHugh’s wordplay. The “stonish spirit” above may yield delighted pause, but lines like “The skeptic/Backs his watch, watches his back” or even “Among our ilk, what’s milk / but opportunity for spillers?” feel archly wooden, as if we were trapped in a David Mamet play. Inevitably, echoic whimsy becomes predictable. Part of the difficulty here is that McHugh doesn’t want to go all the way off the dock into experimental poetry, though she flirts with the dangling indeterminacy of it. Again, I would place her current work squarely in the aphoristic and epigrammatic tradition; on that deep-seated generic level, and despite her love of demotic language, her poems really do aspire to wisdom. It is for this reason that the word-play can seem cosmetic.
Is she funny, though? Many of her readers and reviewers seem to think so, and the jacket copy praises her “infectious laughter.” To be honest, my reaction was a little “stonish.” But while I didn’t find these poems comic, I thought some of them could be very entertaining if performed as Shakespearean soliloquies:
And whether by weathers
(the ins and outs of them)
or by bloody bulldozer
(who lullabied that baby?)—
whether by nature’s nature
or your own (O man, you draw
a fine damn line!)—it hurts to be
at a mercy, or a wit’s end.
—From “Thanks for That Last Heartthrob”
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!—‘tis a naughty night to swim in. This is possibly as literary as it gets, and it reminds us that play—in the sense of both theater and child’s play—really does ache at the atavistic heart of the poetic endeavor. Channeling the fool as well as Lear, McHugh’s voice is the character we get from her work (much as Hacker’s is, to contrasting effect, in hers). Such is the continual challenge of lyric poetry: the poem has to carry character, and context, on its own back, as Barbara Herrnstein Smith has said. In that sense, a McHugh poem is as much heavy lifter as weightless dancer. No wonder it’s so hard to look away.