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Marilyn Hacker

1942–

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 A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2013 (W. W. Norton, 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); and Squares and Courtyards (W. W. Norton, 2000).

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, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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, 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)

By This Poet

16

For K. J., Leaving and Coming Back

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 detective-story clue,
in a manila envelope, postmarked

elsewhere, unmarked otherwise) while you
stood behind me in the midday heat.
Somnolent shudders marked our progress.  Two

horses grazed on a roof across the street.
You didn't believe me until you turned around.
They were both old, one mottled gray, one white.

Past the kitchen's russet dark, we found
bookshelves on both sides of the fireplace:
Verlaine, L'Étranger, Notes from the Underground.

Through an archway, a fresh-plastered staircase
led steeply upward.  In a white room stood
a white-clad brass bed. Sunlight in your face

came from the tree-filled window.  "You did good."
We laid crisp sheets we would inaugurate
that night, rescued from the grenier a wood-

en table we put under the window.  Date 
our homes from that one, to which you returned
the last week of August, on a late

bus, in shorts, like a crew-cut, sunburned
bidasse.  Sunburned, in shorts, a new haircut,
with Auden and a racing pulse I'd earned

by "not being sentimental about 
you,"  I sprinted to "La Populaire."
You walked into my arms when you got out.

At a two minute bus stop, who would care?
"La Populaire" puffed onward to Millau
while we hiked up to the hiatus where

we'd left ourselves when you left St. Guiraud
after an unambiguous decade
of friendship, and some months of something new.

A long week before either of us said
a compromising word acknowledging
what happened every night in the brass bed

and every bird-heralded blue morning
was something we could claim and keep and use;
was, like the house, a place where we could bring

our road-worn, weary selves.
  Now, we've a pause
in a year we wouldn't have wagered on.
Dusk climbs the tiled roof opposite; the blue's

still sun-soaked; it's a week now since you've gone
to be a daughter in the capital.
(I came north with you as far as Beaune.)

I cook things you don't like.  Sometimes I fall
asleep, book open, one A.M., sometimes
I long for you all night in Provencal

or langue d'oc, or wish I could, when I'm 
too much awake.  My early walk, my late
walk mark the day's measures like rhyme.

(There's nothing I hate---perhaps I hate
the adipose deposits on my thighs
---as much as having to stay put and wait!)

Although a day alone cuts tight or lies
too limp sometimes, I know what I didn't know
a year ago, that makes it the right size:
owned certainty; perpetual surprise.

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 spring water palms.

You are the woman sticking her tongue out.
I am the woman who matches sounds.
You are the woman with spring water 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 scaped 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, givers 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.

Morning News

Spring wafts up the smell of bus exhaust, of bread
and fried potatoes, tips green on the branches,
repeats old news: arrogance, ignorance, war.
A cinder-block wall shared by two houses
is new rubble. On one side was a kitchen
sink and a cupboard, on the other was
a bed, a bookshelf, three framed photographs.

Glass is shattered across the photographs;
two half-circles of hardened pocket bread
sit on the cupboard. There provisionally was
shelter, a plastic truck under the branches
of a fig tree. A knife flashed in the kitchen,
merely dicing garlic. Engines of war
move inexorably toward certain houses

while citizens sit safe in other houses
reading the newspaper, whose photographs
make sanitized excuses for the war.
There are innumerable kinds of bread
brought up from bakeries, baked in the kitchen:
the date, the latitude, tell which one was
dropped by a child beneath the bloodied branches.

The uncontrolled and multifurcate branches
of possibility infiltrate houses'
walls, windowframes, ceilings. Where there was
a tower, a town: ash and burnt wires, a graph
on a distant computer screen. Elsewhere, a kitchen
table's setting gapes, where children bred 
to branch into new lives were culled for war.

Who wore this starched smocked cotton dress? Who wore
this jersey blazoned for the local branch
of the district soccer team? Who left this black bread
and this flat gold bread in their abandoned houses?
Whose father begged for mercy in the kitchen?
Whose memory will frame the photograph
and use the memory for what it was

never meant for by this girl, that old man, who was
caught on a ball field, near a window: war,
exhorted through the grief a photograph
revives. (Or was the team a covert branch
of a banned group; were maps drawn in the kitchen,
a bomb thrust in a hollowed loaf of bread?)
What did the old men pray for in their houses

of prayer, the teachers teach in schoolhouses
between blackouts and blasts, when each word was
flensed by new censure, books exchanged for bread, 
both hostage to the happenstance of war?
Sometimes the only schoolroom is a kitchen.
Outside the window, black strokes on a graph
of broken glass, birds line up on bare branches.

"This letter curves, this one spreads its branches
like friends holding hands outside their houses."
Was the lesson stopped by gunfire? Was
there panic, silence? Does a torn photograph
still gather children in the teacher's kitchen?
Are they there meticulously learning war-
time lessons with the signs for house, book, bread?