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"Anyone who has migraines or even tension headaches knows the spiral of disastrous thoughts that accompany them. But it doesn't take a headache to magnify the difficult confrontation of the loss that sometimes seems worse than a death, when your personal exemplars of the generation-that-went-before can no longer guide, advise or comfort."
—Marilyn Hacker

Headaches

Marilyn Hacker, 1942
Wine again. The downside of any evening’s
bright exchanges, scribbled with retribution :
stark awake, a tic throbs in the left temple’s
site of bombardment.

Tortured syntax, thorned thoughts, vocabulary
like a forest littered with unexploded
cluster bombs, no exit except explosion
ripping the branches. 

Stacks of shadowed books on the bedside table
wall a jar of Tiger Balm. You grope for its
glass netsuke hexagon. Tic stabs, dull pain 
supercedes voices,

stills obsessive one-sided conversations.
Turn from mouths you never will kiss, a neck your
fingers will not trace to a golden shoulder.
Think of your elders —

If, in fact, they’d died, the interlocutors
who, alive, recede into incoherence, 
you would write the elegy, feel clean grief, still
asking them questions

— though you know it’s you who’d provide the answers.
Auden’s Old People"s Home, Larkin’s The Old Fools
are what come to mind, not Yeats.  In a not-so
distant past, someone  

poured a glass of wine at three in the morning,
laid a foolscap pad on the kitchen table,
mind aspark from the long loquacious dinner
two hours behind her,

and you got a postcard (a Fifties jazz club) 
next day across town, where she scrawled she’d found the
tail-end of a good Sancerre in the fridge and
finished the chapter. 

Now she barely knows her friends when you visit.
Drill and mallet work on your forehead. Basta!
And it is Màrgaret you mourn for..  Get up, 
go to the bathroom. 

You take the drugs. Synapses buzz and click.
You turn the bed lamp on, open a book :
vasoconstrictor and barbiturate 
make words in oval light reverberate.
The sky begins to pale at five o’clock. 

Copyright © 2013 by Marilyn Hacker. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 10, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Copyright © 2013 by Marilyn Hacker. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on December 10, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

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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poem
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
poem
August First: it was a year ago
we drove down from St.-Guilhem-le-Désert
to open the house in St. Guiraud

rented unseen.  I'd stay; you'd go; that's where
our paths diverged.  I'd settle down to work,
you'd start the next month of your Wanderjahr.

I turned the iron key in the rusted lock
(it came, like a