Marilyn Hacker

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Reading Every Anglo-American Woman Writer of her Time
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It's a great pleasure to be here today and to see so many friendly and familiar and unfamiliar faces and, violet force or lavender menace, here I am. And it's also, I think, a very appropriate way to celebrate the centenary of Emily Dickinson, who would really have appreciated a gathering like this.

Ellen Moore said, when writing about Dickinson, that the real hidden scandal of Emily Dickinson's life was not the romances upon which biographers try vainly to speculate, but her embarrassing ignorance of mainstream American literature of the time, instead of which she read, and reread, every Anglo-American woman writer of her time: Helen Hunt Jackson, Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lady Georgina Fullerton, Diana Maria Craig, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Rebecca Harding Davis, Francesca Alexander, Matilde Macarnus, and of course everything that George Eliot and Mrs. Browning and every single one of the Bronte sisters wrote. "Mrs. Hunt's poems," Dickinson wrote, in an astonishing letter of 1871, "are stronger than any written by women since Mrs. Browning with the exception of Mrs. Lewes." Who but Emily Dickinson cared so much for rating women poets, or cared to read anything by Helen Hunt Jackson, other than Ramona, or cared for George Eliot's poetry, or took care to call her Mrs. Lewes, as she would have preferred?

Emily Dickinson knew, we now know, every stanza of Elizabeth Barrett's novel, Aurora Leigh, by heart, and many of Dickinson's most mysterious or enigmatic poems have proved to be arias on passages from Aurora Leigh. She wrote to the Norcross sisters in 1861 that Mrs. Browning "fainted, we need not read Aurora Leigh to know, and George Sand must make no noise in her grandmother's bedroom. Poor children, women now, queens now. At one in the Eden of God. I guess they both forget that now, so who knows but we, stars from the same night, stop twinkling at last. Take heart, sister. Twilight is but the short bridge, and the moon stands at the end. If we can only get to her. Yet if she sees us fainting she will put out her yellow hands. When did the war really begin?" So that was Emily Dickinson talking about her fellow poets, and here we all are together today in her honor and in each other's honor, and it is, as I said, a great pleasure.

I'm going to start with a longish poem which is written for another wonderful poet and friend, Marie Ponsot, who is here in the audience today. It's a crown of sonnets called "La Fontaine de Vaucluse," and is indeed a poem for and about women poets. It has an epigraph from Richard Howard's poem "Audiences" which is, "Why write unless you praise the sacred places?" The Fontaine de Vaucluse is, of course, where Petrarch wrote all those sonnets. There's a reference in the first poem to a line from H.D.'s--in fact it's from "Tribute to Freud"--she's talking about the voyage she made to Carnac with her friend Bryher in 1920. "Always two ladies alone," she says they were called. "We were not alone."

 

I

 

Azure striation swirls beyond the stones
flung in by French papas and German boys.
The radio guide emits trilingual noise.
"Always 'two ladies alone'; we were not alone."
Source, cunt, umbilicus, resilient blue
springs where the sheer gorge spreads wooded, mossed
    thighs:
unsounded female depth in a child-sized
pool boys throw rocks at. Hobbled in platform shoes,
girls stare from the edge. We came for the day
on a hot bus from Avignon. A Swed-
ish child hurls a chalk boulder; a tall girl,
his sister, twelve, tanned, crouches to finger shell
whorls bedded in rock moss. We find our way
here when we can; we take away what we need.

 

II

 

Here, when we can, we take away what we need:
stones, jars of herb leaves, scrap-patch workbags stored
in the haphazard rooms we can afford.
Marie and I are lucky: we can feed
our children and ourselves on what we earn.
One left the man who beat her, left hostages
two daughters; one weighs her life to her wages,
finds both wanting and, bought out, stays put, scorn-
ful of herself for not deserving more.
The concierge at Le Régent is forty-six;
there fifteen years, widowed for one, behind
counters a dun perpetual presence, fixed
in sallow non-age till Marie talked to her.
I learn she is coeval with my friends.

 

III

 

I learn she is coeval with my friends:
the novelist of seventy who gives
us tea and cakes; the sister with whom she lives
a dialogue; the old Hungarian
countess's potter daughter, British, dyke,
bravely espoused in a medieval hill
town in Provence; Jane whom I probably will
never know and would probably never like;
Liliane the weaver; Liliane's daughter
the weaver; Liliane's housewifely other
daughter, mothering; the great-grandmother
who drove us through gnarled lanes at Avignon;
the virgin at the source with wedgies on;
Iva, who will want to know what I brought her.

 

IV

 

Iva, who will want to know what I brought her
(from Selfridge's, a double-decker bus,
a taxi, Lego; a dark-blue flowered dress
from Uniprix; a wickerwork doll's chair
from the Venice market; books; a wrapped-yarn deer;
a batik: girl guitarist who composes
sea creatures, one of three I chose,
two by the pupil, one by the woman who taught her),
might plunge her arms to the elbows, might shy stones,
might stay shy. I'll see her in ten days.
Sometimes she still swims at my center; sometimes
she is a four-year-old an ocean away
and I am on vertiginous terrain
where I am nobody's mother and nobody's daughter.

 

V

 

"Where I am, nobody's mother and nobody's daughter
can find me," words of a woman in pain
or self-blame, obsessed with an absent or present man,
blindfolded, crossing two swords, her back to the water.
The truth is, I wake up with lust and loss
and only half believe in something better;
the truth is that I still write twelve-page letters
and blame my acne and my flabby ass
that I am thirty-five and celibate.
Women are lustful and fickle and all alike,
say the hand-laid flower-pressed sheets at the paper mill.
I pay attention to what lies they tell
us here, but at the flowered lip, hesitate,
one of the tamed girls stopped at the edge to look.

 

VI

 

One of the tamed girls stopped at the edge to look
at her self in the water, genital self that stains
and stinks, that is synonymous with drains,
wounds, pettiness, stupidity, rebuke.
The pool creates itself, cleansed, puissant, deep
as magma, maker, genetrix. Marie
and I, each with a notebook on her knee,
begin to write, homage the source calls up
or force we find here. There is another source
consecrate in the pool we perch above:
our own intelligent accord that brings
us to the lucid power of the spring
to work at reinventing work and love.
We may be learning how to tell the truth.

 

VII

 

We may be learning how to tell the truth.
Distracted by a cinematic sky,
Paris below two dozen shades of gray,
in borrowed rooms we couldn't afford, we both
work over words till we can tell ourselves
what we saw. I get up at eight, go down
to buy fresh croissants, put a saucepan on
and brew first shared coffee. The water solves
itself, salves us. Sideways, hugging the bank,
two stocky women helped each other, drank
from leathery cupped palms. We make our own
descent downstream, getting our shoes wet, care-
fully hoist cold handsful from a crevice where
azure striation swirls beyond the stones.

This is a pantoum, a poem which was meant to be memorized, a Malaysian form written in quatrains in which the second and fourth line of each stanza become repeated as the first and third of the one following until it ends up with its tail in its mouth like the worm aruburus. And this one I wrote for my daughter Iva when she was younger and it's called "Iva's Pantoum".

IVA'S PANTOUM

 

We pace each other for a long time.
I packed my anger with the beef jerky.
You are the baby on the mountain. I am
in a cold stream where I led you.

 

I packed my anger with the beef jerky.
You are the woman sticking her tongue out
in a cold stream where I led you.
You are the woman with springwater palms.

 

You are the woman sticking her tongue out.
I am the woman who matches sounds.
You are the woman with springwater palms.
I am the woman who copies.

 

You are the woman who matches sounds.
You are the woman who makes up words.
You are the woman who copies
her cupped palm with her fist in clay.

 

I am the woman who makes up words.
You are the woman who shapes
a drinking bowl with her fist in clay.
I am the woman with rocks in her pockets.

 

I am the woman who shapes.
I was a baby who knew names.
You are the child with rocks in her pockets.
You are the girl in a plaid dress.

 

You are the woman who knows names.
You are the baby who could fly.
You are the girl in a plaid dress
upside down on the monkey bars.

 

You are the baby who could fly
over the moon from a swinging perch
upside down on the monkey bars.
You are the baby who eats meat.

 

Over the moon from a swinging perch
the feathery goblin calls her sister.
You are the baby who eats meat
the bitch wolf hunts and chews for you.

 

The feathery goblin calls her sister:
"You are braver than your mother.
The bitch wolf hunts and chews for you.
What are you whining about now?"

 

You are braver than your mother
and I am not a timid woman:
what are you whining about now?
My palms itch with slick anger,

 

and I'm not a timid woman.
You are the woman I can't mention;
my palms itch with slick anger.
You are the heiress of scraped knees.

 

You are the woman I can't mention
to a woman I want to love.
You are the heiress of scraped knees:
scrub them in mountain water.

 

To a woman, I want to love
women you could turn into
scrub them in mountain water,
stroke their astonishing faces.

 

Women you could turn into
the scare mask of Bad Mother
stroke their astonishing faces
in the silver-scratched sink mirror.

 

The scare mask of Bad Mother
crumbles to chunked, pinched clay,
sinks in the silver-scratched mirror.
You are the Little Robber Girl who

 

crumbles the clay chunks, pinches
her friend, gives her a sharp knife.
You are the Little Robber Girl who
was any witch's youngest daughter.

 

Our friend gives you a sharp knife,
shows how the useful blades open.
Was any witch's youngest daughter
golden and bold as you? You run and

 

show how the useful blades open.
You are the baby on the mountain. I am
golden and bold as you. You run and
we pace each other for a long time.

The little robber girl who's in that poem got into a whole series of poems based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, "The Snow Queen", which forms a whole section of Assumptions. As most of you may remember, it's, basically, which is why I think I loved it as a child, a girl's quest story: how young Gerda goes in search of her playmate Kaye, who has been kidnapped by the Snow Queen, and has all kinds of adventures on her way, mostly with an assortment of female characters--a witch, a princess, a robber woman chieftain of her band, and the robber woman's daughter who saves Gerda's life by saying, no, no, you shan't kill her, she'll be my pet and sleep with me in my bed, and if I get angry with her I'll kill her myself. I'll read a couple of poems from the sequence. This is the robber chieftan, the robber woman speaking, the mother of this fierce child. It has an epigraph from the story: "'Listen,' said the robber girl to Gerda 'you see that all the robbers are gone. Only my mother is left and she will soon fall asleep. Then I shall do something for you.'" And this is the mother, the robber woman, speaking:

THE ROBBER WOMAN

 

I cuffed you into shape. I molded you
in my swelling matrix, pushed you out
into the world. I push you into the world
daily, and the labor is the same:
very like pain, unless I work at it.

 

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

 

You kicked me from the inside long enough
when I bulged with you. I put my elbows
on what must have been your pointed butt
and watched your bony angles flying out.
I picked my load up when I'd caught my breath.

 

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

 

I hug you and I slap you. I kiss you
and I curse you. I get your booted foot
on my scarred shins. I can still throw you down
and pick you up. Most of the time, it's play.
You knocked my knife hand and my breath out today.

 

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

 

You cheered when your head reached my belt buckle.
Now I can't peer into your matted hair.
You lean against me. I can rest my chin
on your head, smelling unwashed child, while you
play-punch my breasts the way you always did.

 

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

 

I always feel you in my hands, like clay.
You're oven-ready now. When you are baked
in the kiln of the world, my hands could break
what they made as accidently
as easily as anybody's hands.

 

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

 

You've started. I've scrubbed away your first blood.
My breasts are hard as when we nursed. I'm due.
You chose your friend; you took her for yourself
up into that cat hideout where you sleep.
I hardly wonder what you talk about.

 

You are safe in the upper air
to believe what a child believes:
no blow that you receive
will ever leave a scar
but the impatient care-
less clout your mother gives;
certain that if you live
another hundred years
you never will forgive
a grain of malice there.
No harm ascends the stairs
unless your mother leaves
the bedroom door ajar.
The heavy step that weaves
its twist of fear in rev-
eries of empowered love
is--do you doubt it--hers.
The clean wind strips the eaves.
You stretch to what you will dare.
No one will know what you are
as long as I sleep among thieves.

One of the most mysterious and wonderful characters in the Snow Queen story is the Finland woman who lives at the very border of the South Pole where the Snow Queen's dreadful citadel is to be found. And she's the last person Gerda finds on her journey. Gerda is riding the reindeer given to her by the robber girl, carrying a message from the Finland woman's friend, the Lapland woman, written on a piece of dried cod which the Finland woman reads and then cooks the dried cod because she never wastes anything. The reindeer then whispers to the Finland woman, who was something of a witch, something of a shaman, something of a wise person whose powers we really never know. "You are so wise," the reindeer said, "you could bind the winds of the world in a single strand. Why don't you use your magic and help her?" At which the Finland woman says, "Well she's come so far on her own, she can help herself."

This poem is called "The Rune of the Finland Woman," and it's for a friend of mine who lives almost at the borders of the South Pole, at least at the other side of the world, in Budapest. Her name is Sára Karig, and this is "The Rune of the Finland Woman" which was written for her.

THE RUNE OF THE FINLAND WOMAN

 

She could bind the world's winds in a single strand.
She could find the world's words in a singing wind.
She could lend a weird will to a mottled hand.
She could wind a willed word from a muddled mind

 

She could wend the wild woods on a saddled hind.
She could sound a wellspring with a rowan wand.
She could bind the wolf's wounds in a swaddling band.
She could bind a banned book in a silken skin.

 

She could spend a world war on invaded land.
She could pound the dry roots to a kind of bread.
She could feed a road gang on invented food.
She could find the spare parts of the severed dead.

 

She could find the stone limbs in a waste of sand.
She could stand the pit cold with a withered lung.
She could handle bad puns in the slang she learned.
She could dandle foundlings in their mother tongue.

 

She could plait a child's hair with a fishbone comb.
She could tend a coal fire in the Arctic wind.
She could mend an engine with a sewing pin.
She could warm the dark feet of a dying man.

 

She could drink the stone soup from a doubtful well.
She could breathe the green stink of a trench latrine.
She could drink a queen's share of important wine.
She could think a few things she would never tell.

 

She could learn the hand code of the deaf and blind.
She could earn the iron keys of the frozen queen.
She could wander uphill with a drunken friend.
She could bind the world's winds in a single strand.

I'm going to read a few poems from a new book that's coming out in October. It's essentially a novel in sonnets--a long time, well, not that long a time--since anybody has written one of those. It's called Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, which is what it's about, as if anything weren't about that, one of the above, or all. Only this first one has a title which is called La Loubiane which is the name of a restaurant in Southern France.

LA LOUBIANE

 

Two long-haired women in the restaurant
caress each other's forearms. I avert
my eyes. I'm glad to see them there; I hurt
looking on, lonely, when I so much want
to touch your arm, your hand like that, in front
of two mémés enjoying their dessert,
a British couple with two kids, alert
their girls are pigging frites, and me. I can't,
and wouldn't, let them know: I'm one; it makes
my thoughts real when they touch each other. They're
guests at the hotel. They go in through
the glassed-in terrace, slow upstairs, to view
the moon go down through snarled vines of their hair.
The little English girls devour their cakes.

 

Five-thirty, little one, already light
outside. From Spanish Harlem, sun spills through
the seamless windows of my Gauloise blue
bedroom, where you're sleeping, with what freight
of dreams. Blue boat, blue boat, I'll navigate
and pilot, this dawn-watch. There's someone who
is dying, darling, and that's always true
though skin on skin we would obliterate
the fact, and mouth on mouth alive have come
to something like the equilibrium
of a light skiff, on not-quite-tidal waves.
And aren't we, when we are on dry land
(with shaky sea legs) walking hand in hand
(often enough) reading the lines on graves?

 

[UNTITLED]

 

You did say, need me less and I'll want you more.
I'm still shellshocked at needing anyone,
used to being used to it on my own.
It won't be me out on the tiles till four-
thirty, while you're in bed, willing the door
open with your need. You wanted her then,
more. Because you need to, I woke alone
in what's not yet our room, strewn, though, with your
guitar, shoes, notebook, socks, trousers enjambed
with mine. Half the world was sleeping it off
in every other bed under my roof.
I wish I had a roof over my bed
to pull down on my head when I feel damned
by wanting you so much it looks like need.

 

Grief, and I want to take it up in you;
joy, and I want to spend it all inside
you; fear, and you are the place I can hide.
Courage is what leaves me brave enough to
turn you around and tell you what to do
to me, after. Rivers, and downstream glide
I; we breathe together. You look, or I'd
get scared, but you're watching while you take me through
the deep part, where I find you, where you need
to know I do know where, know how to drive
the point home. Wit: you get the point and flat
statement of a gift of tongues. I get
up, and you get me down, get lost, you lead
me home, or I take you, and we both arrive.

 

How can you love me with the things I feel
that scare me crashing on the window glass?
How can you love me when I'm such an ass-
hole (sometimes) I can't take hold of what's real-
ly there and use it, let you take the wheel
and put my head back as the truck-stops pass?
Where would we go that morning? Would the grass
beside the highway mount to granite, steel
and rubber take us far enough that I
could pull my ghosts out of my guts and cry
for them, with you behind me, on some high
stone place, where water breaks from underground
arteries with hard breaths, that would sound
like mine, letting them go, saying goodbye?

And I'd like to close with one longish, not too long I hope, poem from Assumptions, which started, as so many do, as a kind of gift in a letter from a friend, another poet, named Julia Álvarez, who has a wonderful book called Homecoming out from Grove Press. And Julia had been writing a series of sonnets in which there was one on the old Francoise Villon theme of "where are the beauties of yesteryear?" And in the accompanying letter she said, "Of course, I'm sorry that plain old Margaret Fuller died, too." And that was the gift that started this going. It's called "The Ballad of Ladies Lost and Found," and it's dedicated to Julia Álvarez.

Where are the women who, entre deux guerres
came out on college-graduation trips,
came to New York on football scholarships,
came to town meeting in a decorous pair?
Where are the expatriate salonnières,
the gym teacher, the math-department head?
Do nieces follow where their odd aunts led?
The elephants die off in Cagnes-sur-Mer.
H.D., whose "nature was bisexual,"
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Where are the single-combat champions:
the Chevalier d'Eon with curled peruke,
Big Sweet who ran with Zora in the jook,
open-handed Winifred Ellerman,
Colette, who hedged her bets and always won?
Sojourner's sojourned where she need not pack
decades of whitegirl conscience on her back.
The spirit gave up Zora; she lay down
under a weed field miles from Eatonville,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Where's Stevie, with her pleated schoolgirl dresses,
and Rosa, with her permit to wear pants?
Who snuffed Clara's mestiza flamboyance
and bled Frida onto her canvases?
Where are the Niggerati hostesses,
the kohl-eyed ivory poets with severe
chignons, the rebels who grew out their hair,
the bulldaggers with marceled processes?
Conglomerates co-opted Sugar Hill,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Anne Hutchinson, called witch, termagent, whore,
fell to the long knives, having tricked the noose.
Carolina María de Jesús'
tale from the slag heaps of the landless poor
ended on a straw mat on a dirt floor.
In action thirteen years after fifteen
in prison, Eleanor of Aquitaine
accomplished half of Europe and fourscore
anniversaries for good or ill,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Has Ida B. persuaded Susan B.
to pool resources for a joint campaign?
(Two Harriets act a pageant by Lorraine,
cheered by the butch drunk on the IRT
who used to watch me watch her watching me.)
We've notes by Angelina Grimké Weld
for choral settings drawn from the Compiled
Poems
of Angelina Weld Grimké.
There's no such tense as Past Conditional,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Who was Sappho's protégée, and when did
we lose Hrotsvitha, dramaturge and nun?
What did bibulous Suzanne Valadon
think about Artemesia, who tended
to make a life-size murderess look splendid?
Where's Aphra, fond of dalliance and the pun?
Where's Jane, who didn't indulge in either one?
Whoever knows how Ende, Pintrix, ended
is not teaching Art History at Yale,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Is Beruliah upstairs behind the curtain
debating Juana Inés de la Cruz?
Where's savante Anabella, Augusta-Goose,
Fanny, Maude, Lidian, Freda, and Caitlin,
"without whom this could never have been written"?
Louisa who wrote, scrimped, saved, sewed, and nursed,
Malinche, who's, like all translators, cursed,
Bessie, whose voice was hemp and steel and satin,
outside a segregated hospital,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Where's Amy, who kept Ada in cigars
and love, requited, both country and courtly,
although quinquagenerian and portly?
Where's Emily? It's very still upstairs.
Where's Billie, whose strange fruit ripened in bars?
Where's the street-scavenging Little Sparrow?
Too poor, too mean, too weird, too wide, too narrow:
Marie Curie, examining her scars,
was not particularly beautiful;
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Who was the grandmother of Frankenstein?
The Vindicatrix of the Rights of Woman.
Madame de Sévigné said prayers to summon
the postman just as eloquent as mine,
though my Madame de Grignan's only nine.
But Mary Wollstonecraft had never known
that daughter, nor did Paula Modersohn.
The three-day infants blinked in the sunshine.
The mothers turned their faces to the wall;
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

 

Tomorrow night the harvest moon will wane
that's floodlighting the silhouetted wood.
Make your own footnotes; it will do you good.
Emeritae have nothing to explain.
She wasn't very old, or really plain--
my age exactly, volumes incomplete.
"The life, the life, will it never be so sweet?"
She wrote it once; I quote it once again
midlife at midnight when the moon is full
and I can almost hear the warning bell
offshore, sounding through starlight like a stain
on waves that heaved over what she began
and truncated a woman's chronicle,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

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