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March 31, 1992 Alliance Francaise, New York City From the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Born in New York City on November 27, 1942, Marilyn Hacker was the only child of a working-class Jewish couple, each the first in their families to attend college. Hacker attended the Bronx High School of Science before enrolling at New York University, where she received a BA in Romance Languages in 1964.

Hacker moved to London in 1970, where she worked as a book dealer. With the mentorship of Richard Howard, then the editor of The New American Review, Hacker's first collection of poems, Presentation Piece, was published by the Viking Press in 1974. The collection was both the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets and the recipient of the National Book Award.

In 1976, Hacker's second collection of poems, Separations, was published by Alfred A. Knopf, followed by Taking Notice (Alfred A. Knopf, 1980) and Assumptions (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). In 1986, Hacker published Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (Arbor House), an autofictional narrative told mainly through sonnets. In 1990, she published Going Back to the River (Vintage Books), for which she received a Lambda Literary Award.

Hacker's 1994 collection, Winter Numbers (W. W. Norton), details the loss of many of her friends to both AIDS and cancer, and explores her own struggle with breast cancer. The collection, which was in many ways darker than Hacker's previous work, won both the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and a Lambda Literary Award.

Since then, Hacker has published many more collections, including Names (W. W. Norton, 2010); Desesperanto: Poems 1999-2002 (W. W. Norton, 2003); First Cities: Collected Early Poems 1960-1979 (W. W. Norton, 2003); and Squares and Courtyards (W. W. Norton, 2000). A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2013, will be published by W. W. Norton in the winter of 2014. 

About Hacker's work, the poet Jan Heller Levi has said:

"I think of her magnificent virtuosity in the face of all the strictures to be silent, to name her fears and her desires, and in the process, to name ours. Let's face it, no one writes about lust and lunch like Marilyn Hacker. No one can jump around in two, sometimes even three, languages and come up with poems that speak for those of us who sometimes barely think we can even communicate in one. And certainly no one has done more, particularly in the last decade of formalism, to demonstrate that form has nothing to do with formula. In villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets—not to mention a variety of forms whose names I can't even pronounce—Marilyn Hacker can journey us on a single page through feelings as confusing as moral certainty to feelings as potentially empowering as unrequited passion."

Hacker is also highly regarded for her criticism, editing, and translation. She served as editor of The Kenyon Review from 1990 to 1994. As translator, she has published Claire Malroux's A Long-Gone Sun (Sheep Meadow Press, 2000) and Birds and Bison (Sheep Meadow Press, 2004); Vénus Khoury-Ghata's collections Here There Was Once a Country (Oberlin College Press, 2001), She Says (Graywolf Press, 2003), and Nettles (Graywolf Press, 2008); Guy Goffette’s Charlestown Blues (Princeton University Press, 2007); Marie Ettiene's King of a Hundred Horsemen: Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), which received the PEN Award for poetry in translation; Hédi Kaddour’s Treason (Yale, 2010); Emmanuel Moses’s He and I (Oberlin, 2010); Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head (Yale, 2012); and Habib Tengour’s Crossings (Post-Apollo Press, 2013). 

Her essay collection, Unauthorized Voices, was published by Michigan in 2010. 

Hacker has received numerous honors, including the Bernard F. Conners Prize from the Paris Review, the John Masefield Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, the PEN Voelcker Award, the Argana International Poetry Prize from the Beit as-Shir/House of Poetry in Morocco, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.

In 2008, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

She lives in Paris.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2013 (W. W. Norton, forthcoming 2015). 
Names (W. W. Norton, 2010)
Desesperanto: Poems 1999-2002 (W. W. Norton, 2003)
First Cities: Collected Early Poems 1960-1979 (W. W. Norton, 2003)
Squares and Courtyards (W. W. Norton, 2000)
Selected Poems: 1965-1990 (W. W. Norton, 1994)
Winter Numbers (W. W. Norton, 1994)
Going Back to the River (Vintage Books, 1990)
Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (Arbor House, 1986)
Assumptions (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985)
Taking Notice (Alfred A. Knopf, 1980)
Separations (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976)
Presentation Piece (Viking Press, 1974)


Translation

King of a Hundred Horsemen: Poems by Marie Ettiene (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
Nettles by Vénus Khoury-Ghata (Graywolf Press, 2008)
Birds and Bison by Claire Malroux (Sheep Meadow Press, 2004)
She Says by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, (Graywolf Press, 2003)
Here There Was Once a Country by Vénus Khoury-Ghata (Oberlin College Press, 2001)
A Long-Gone Sun by Claire Malroux (Sheep Meadow Press, 2000)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Against Elegies

Marilyn Hacker, 1942
James has cancer. Catherine has cancer.
Melvin has AIDS.
Whom will I call, and get no answer?
My old friends, my new friends who are old,
or older, sixty, seventy, take pills
before or after dinner. Arthritis
scourges them. But irremediable night is
farther away from them; they seem to hold
it at bay better than the young-middle-aged
whom something, or another something, kills
before the chapter's finished, the play staged.
The curtains stay down when the light fades.

Morose, unanswerable, the list
of thirty- and forty-year-old suicides
(friends' lovers, friends' daughters) insists
in its lengthening: something's wrong.
The sixty-five-year-olds are splendid, vying
with each other in work-hours and wit.
They bring their generosity along,
setting the tone, or not giving a shit.
How well, or how eccentrically, they dress!
Their anecdotes are to the point, or wide
enough to make room for discrepancies.
But their children are dying.

Natalie died by gas in Montpeyroux.
In San Francisco, Ralph died
of lung cancer, AIDS years later, Lew
wrote to me. Lew, who at forty-five,
expected to be dead of drink, who, ten
years on, wasn't, instead survived
a gentle, bright, impatient younger man.
(Cliché: he falls in love with younger men.)
Natalie's father came, and Natalie,
as if she never had been there, was gone.
Michèle closed up their house (where she
was born). She shrouded every glass inside

— mirrors, photographs — with sheets, as Jews
do, though she's not a Jew.
James knows, he thinks, as much as he wants to.
He's been working half-time since November.
They made the diagnosis in July.
Catherine is back in radiotherapy.
Her schoolboy haircut, prematurely grey,
now frames a face aging with other numbers:
"stage two," "stage three" mean more than "fifty-one"
and mean, precisely, nothing, which is why
she stares at nothing: lawn chair, stone,
bird, leaf; brusquely turns off the news.

I hope they will be sixty in ten years
and know I used their names
as flares in a polluted atmosphere,
as private reasons where reason obtains
no quarter. Children in the streets
still die in grandfathers' good wars.
Pregnant women with AIDS, schoolgirls, crack whores,
die faster than men do, in more pain,
are more likely than men to die alone.
What are our statistics, when I meet
the lump in my breast, you phone
the doctor to see if your test results came?

The earth-black woman in the bed beside
Lidia on the AIDS floor — deaf and blind:
I want to know if, no, how, she died.
The husband, who'd stopped visiting, returned?
He brought the little boy, those nursery-
school smiles taped on the walls? She traced
her name on Lidia's face
when one of them needed something. She learned
some Braille that week. Most of the time, she slept.
Nobody knew the baby's HIV
status. Sleeping, awake, she wept.
And I left her name behind.

And Lidia, where's she
who got her act so clean
of rum and Salem Filters and cocaine
after her passing husband passed it on?
As soon as she knew
she phoned and told her mother she had AIDS
but no, she wouldn't come back to San Juan.
Sipping café con leche with dessert,
in a blue robe, thick hair in braids,
she beamed: her life was on the right
track, now. But the cysts hurt
too much to sleep through the night.

No one was promised a shapely life
ending in a tutelary vision.
No one was promised: if
you're a genuinely irreplaceable
grandmother or editor
you will not need to be replaced.
When I die, the death I face
will more than likely be illogical:
Alzheimer's or a milk truck: the absurd.
The Talmud teaches we become impure
when we die, profane dirt, once the word
that spoke this life in us has been withdrawn,

the letter taken from the envelope.
If we believe the letter will be read,
some curiosity, some hope
come with knowing that we die.
But this was another century
in which we made death humanly obscene:
Soweto  El Salvador  Kurdistan
Armenia  Shatila  Baghdad  Hanoi
Auschwitz  Each one, unique as our lives are,
taints what's left with complicity,
makes everyone living a survivor
who will, or won't, bear witness for the dead.

I can only bear witness for my own
dead and dying, whom I've often failed:
unanswered letters, unattempted phone
calls, against these fictions. A fiction winds
her watch in sunlight, cancer ticking bone
to shards. A fiction looks
at proofs of a too-hastily finished book
that may be published before he goes blind.
The old, who tell good stories, half expect
that what's written in their chromosomes
will come true, that history won't interject
a virus or a siren or a sealed

train to where age is irrelevant.
The old rebbetzen at Ravensbruck
died in the most wrong place, at the wrong time.
What do the young know different?
No partisans are waiting in the woods
to welcome them. Siblings who stayed home
count down doom. Revolution became
a dinner party in a fast-food chain,
a vendetta for an abscessed crime,
a hard-on market for consumer goods.
A living man reads a dead woman's book.
She wrote it; then, he knows, she was turned in.

For every partisan
there are a million gratuitous
deaths from hunger, all-American
mass murders, small wars,
the old diseases and the new.
Who dies well? The privilege
of asking doesn't have to do with age.
For most of us
no question what our deaths, our lives, mean.
At the end, Catherine will know what she knew,
and James will, and Melvin,
and I, in no one's stories, as we are.

"Against Elegies," from Winter Numbers by Marilyn Hacker. Copyright © 1994 by Marilyn Hacker. Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

"Against Elegies," from Winter Numbers by Marilyn Hacker. Copyright © 1994 by Marilyn Hacker. Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Marilyn Hacker

Marilyn Hacker

Born in New York City on November 27, 1942, Marilyn Hacker is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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for Fadwa Soleiman

Said the old woman who barely spoke the language:
Freedom is a dream, and we don’t know whose.
Said the insurgent who was now an exile:
When I began to write the story I started bleeding.

Freedom is a dream, and we don’t know whose—
that man I last saw

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