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Analysis of Marilyn Hacker’s Letters

Hacker’s letter, and her correspondence to Russ, reveals Hacker’s thoughts on Rich as a talented and revered yet unfair mentor. The letter presents the discourse of the child that strives but is unable to achieve the approval of the mother. One might examine Hacker’s relationship to Rich as a counter reaction to Hacker’s earlier relationship with her own mother, who like Rich only makes an appearance in writing after Hacker’s first two collections (i.e. post-1976 writing). Hacker describes her mother as a “bad-tempered”, “narrow-minded”, and “bigoted” woman who disapproved of Hacker, especially resentful of her marriage to Delany, which caused Hacker to fear and dislike her mother for her entire life.[1] Her mother is first mentioned in her third collection, Taking Notice, as she understands her motives and forgives her injustices. Hacker comes to terms with her childhood after she returns to the U.S. and becomes aware of the importance of women’s relationships and women’s community. It is with the help of these groups that Hacker was able to relate to other women who had similar experiences with their mothers as she writes to Russ:

sometimes I think we are the only two feminists in the world who are not having deep and rewarding relationships with our re-discovered mothers: Adrienne, Honor, June Jordan – well, two of these mothers are dead, but some of the work is about all that reconciliation, rediscovery, acceptance, even gratitude. I’m glad I’m not the only one with an awful one.[2]

Hacker’s letter reiterates Rich’s explanation of Hacker’s relationship to the male literary world, in which Hacker, like many of her female predecessors, mostly looked on at what was going on around her; not of it, but in it:

I’ve been writing for a long time, and, like you, though not for identical reasons, didn’t spend my twenties in the poet’s world. I was a woman, and what I wrote didn’t go down too well in St. Mark’s Place or Bolinas. Nothing of mine was published, outside of undergraduate magazines, before 1969, when I was twenty-six. In short, there were (are, even) a lot of unpublished poems around. And some of those early poems went into the two books, especially into Separations; perhaps sheer egotism, perhaps an attempt by me aged thirty-three to rescue and justify the lonely girl of twenty whose art had to be self-sustained.[3]

Referring to St. Mark’s Place and Bolinas, Hacker illustrates how the cultural and literary scene was gendered during the 1960s. St. Mark’s Place was considered the main cultural street in New York’s East Village, which was earlier named the Lower East Side. In the 1960s, it was the cheapest neighbourhood in Manhattan and home to the largest number of cultural and historical figures, such as Auden.[4] Not only was it a place that nurtured creativity, but it was also home to many immigrant communities – Jewish, German, Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian.[5] Like St. Marks’s Place, Bolinas was also a site of a youth counterculture, but on the West Coast in California instead of the East Coast. Hacker’s experience with the literary scene there comes from her days spent with the Spicer Circle in 1965. Becoming a writer during this time, Hacker strived for public recognition and found it easier to identify with a distinct male literary inheritance to help her succeed; nevertheless, she was overshadowed by the attention her husband received for his science fiction novels. Anecdotes from his autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water (1988), mirror accounts in Hacker’s letters about her anxiety over his recognition and her marginalisation in these circles, as she explains in the letter to Rich:

For most of my life, the reaction to my being a poet was “well, that’s nice dear,” coupled with the fact that almost everyone who knew me as a precocious adolescent artist, or twenty-year-old artist, or twenty-five-year-old-artist also knew Chip, and anything I did became meringue compared to the enormity and solidity of his multi-volume achievements. I’ve always, apart from that, gotten into, even sought out, non-supportive people and environments: Link, who a potentially fine poet himself, made a great point of laughing at, ignoring, or trivializing everything I wrote (even and especially when it was about him).[6]

In her writings, however, Hacker argues that the difference in their engagement with the masculine tradition points to the different roots of their feminism. Rich’s feminist poetics was a necessary survival strategy against the patriarchal context of marriage and having three children shortly afterwards, by which poetry was the lifeboat that was to throw her “back into mere survival, taught [her] that poetry was not something about fame or gossip or reputations or criticism, but simply the only way of staying alive”.[7] Her work goes from heterosexual eroticism to heterosexual anger to non-sexual poems about women to, finally, poems about lesbian relationships in a radical separatist attitude. Hacker, on the other hand, was not anti-male as she wrote in a male tradition in the midst of a male literary group among what she calls a “comfortable male-homophilic circle” in which women were “invisible” and “isolated” from each other. The atmosphere was congenial and

in terms of conversation and cooking, agreeable surroundings, a lifestyle that was a comfortable hybrid of high-civilized & alternative society (on a low budget), it was a nice way to live, as long as I could convince myself somehow I was really a very peculiar sort of faggot (I still rather miss it, really).[8]

As such, this early male-centred experience nurtured an affinity toward the masculine tradition without being part of it as an artist: “I find it easier to read Auden – or Richard Howard – than Muriel Rukeyser: and, often, disturbingly, find there more that I can use”.[9] Hacker’s life reflected in her early work, therefore, is a product of her choice of artistic and social environment, not of a passive victimhood of patriarchal circumstances. In this way, the powerful critiques of patriarchal society that were part of Rich’s early work were not part of Hacker’s, as her work went from a heterosexual pre-political outlook to a poetry of feminist and lesbian identity. Though Hacker agrees with Rich’s critique of her tone of voice and language, she disagrees and argues to Russ that her formalism is not obsolete and defends herself as a highly competent verse technician, even better than Rich, who might out of envy of this mastery have criticised the younger poet. Hacker’s letter to Russ is a clear indication of Hacker’s emerging nomadic consciousness:

I took umbrage, in my mind, with “but we did all that in the ‘50s, and struggled out of it again.” I don’t know who “we” are, and I really don’t believe what I’ve written was all done before in the 50’s! In the 50’s and in the 60’s, I was always being told that I couldn’t do what I did; it wasn’t contemporary, it wasn’t fashionable, in fact. I agree with a lot of what she says. I also heretically think, that, for what it’s worth, my formal poetry is better than what Rich did when she was writing formal poetry –that my first two books, on re-reading, are more successful than her first two; which is not such a terrible arrogation of credit to myself, as her first two were published before she was 26. I resist the idea, almost as much coming from Adrienne Rich as from Clayton Eshleman or Ted Berrigan, that there is a certain form of poetry that is ‘current’ or ‘Contemporary’ and that other forms are outdated. I haven’t always written formal poetry, and I’ve no idea if I’ll continue to write it at all, but the idea of contemporaneity in form as a stricture is bothersome![10] (underline in original)

This literary correspondence between two highly individual writers reveals a literary relationship that was not reciprocal, even though they have much in common. They both shared a love for metrical verse, and though Rich moved away from it, her subsequent poetry shows shadow presences of earlier forms. Both began with a poetics that was covertly feminist, then approached the political project of women’s experience and writing within social, cultural, and historical contexts. Yet, as this discourse about formalism reveals, both were aiming at different kinds of politics through two different visions of women’s poetry: the radical, and the transformative or subversive. Hacker attempts to achieve a poetry that integrates content into form, in that she sees that women’s use of poetic form is to transform, not conform, to masculine traditions, or to recall her words to Karla Hammond, “reclaim the tradition, to rediscover and redefine our place in it and lay claim to our considerable contributions, innovations, and inventions” (22). From this 1980 interview with Hammond onwards, Hacker openly identifies with her matrilineal heritage as potential female role models.

Since Hacker was not involved in the movement in America, or even in England, she was lacking in practical knowledge, and her pre-feminism was illustrated in reviving a tradition of female formalists. Rich, however, represents the American radical feminists that insisted on the unity of the female self as the ideal for a feminist identity. To Rich, it would be more understandable for Hacker to conform to contemporary American women’s poetry, espousing free verse in the articulation of women’s experiences, given that form invokes patriarchal standards and is limiting as the language of the oppressor. In Rich’s view, a true expression of experience necessitates moving beyond formal aesthetics for a woman writer’s life and work to become an integrated whole. The all-inclusive, universalist feminism of the second wave leaves Rich making generalisations about poetic form being part of the male literary inheritance that women writers must cast off. The hegemony of Anglo-American feminism, as is discussed later in the chapter, was challenged by succeeding generations of diverse feminists who rejected its dominant and colonising voice.

Interestingly, before Rich advised Hacker on her poetics, Hacker was already contemplating returning to America. With the relationships to the men in her life faltering, Hacker turned to friendships with women to share her experiences as a lonely and isolated expat woman writer and mother. Simultaneous to her thoughts on returning, also before Rich’s letter, Hacker’s feminist outlook began to develop as she became aware of how women and their experiences were invisible and ignored by the art industry. In many of her letters, she expresses feminist thinking and a desire to engage in women’s issues in a move away from an interior self-absorption and what she calls a “heterosexual sturm und drang”,[11] as she writes to Russ in a 1975 letter:

Most of my strongest emotional & intellectual reactions these days seem to be to political situations that is, the feminist question, whether it’s a reaction to a book or film or piece of journalism, or to a situation I or someone else gets into . . . I must . . . devise a way to forge polemic into poetry. Sputtering, inarticulate rage doesn’t help anyone.[12]

Although these sentiments did not yet surface in Hacker’s writing, Rich’s reasoning struck a chord with Hacker at a time when she needed external validation and effective stimulation in the right direction. Indeed, her following collection, Taking Notice, illustrates how she modified her poetics to allow the reader to focus more on her political message, and as a result, lesbian identity becomes the heart of Hacker’s feminist poetics in the way that she perceives that “Lesbians may well be the feminist vanguard now” (underline in original).[13] As lesbian desire became more intrinsically a part of her personal life, she was able to talk about it as part of what feminists in the 1980s and 1990s meant by ‘political’: “Look, baby, I want to be queer / it’s the light at the end of the / long march, et cetera” (TN 292).

This change in her poetics reflects the larger post-feminist shift that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a backlash against the hegemony of second-wave feminism. In The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (2000)Ruth Rosen explains how many young women in the late 1970s “felt conflicted and ambivalent about feminism” (274). She goes on to explain that these women wanted to enjoy all the freedom that resulted from the movement – “sexual freedom, career, marriage, and motherhood”– without the support of a movement and without “the tyrannical scrutiny with which feminists judged other women” (275-276). Rich described this time as a “laid-back” decade in comparison to the activism of the movement.[14] The feminist Susan Bolotin, who coined the term “post-feminist” in the 1982 article “Voices of the Post-Feminist Generation”, found that her “activism [had] become more of the money-giving, letter-writing sort” (275). Feminist writers of the 1980s, such as Cora Kaplan, described this change as a move away from heterosexual attack to a woman-centred vision: “All my published writing has been within and for feminism. These days, however, . . . I write for women, rather than as in my early work, constructing a polemic directed against men” (60). Because Hacker was a deeply committed feminist and lesbian but not inimical toward men, she reflects the “post-feminist” conditions of the transformative 1980s.

“The consensus of second wave feminism”, according to Ann Brooks, “was increasingly challenged from both within and outside feminism” (8). The pressure from inside stemmed from “the political impact of women of color’s critique of the racist and ethnocentric assumptions of a largely white, middle-class feminism” (8). As for Jewish American women writers, Susan Gubar notes that “those publishing during the last decades of the twentieth century – tended to use their artistry to critique American prejudice by emphasizing its commonalities and differences with anti-Semitic bigotry” (“Jewish American” 235). This sense of connection stems from American Jews’ critique of white privilege in an attempt to return to a racial category, allowing them to forge “a deep connection to a Jewish history of discrimination and otherness . . . an experience of prejudice and awareness of the contingency of whiteness” (Rosenbaum).

The diversity and difference that characterised post-feminism permitted Jewish American women writers like Hacker to criticise the injustice of racism through autobiographical writings of Jewish mothers of black children, as in Hacker’s poems about her biracial daughter. Giving birth to, breastfeeding, and nurturing a black child in the 1970s raised Hacker’s awareness of blackness and racism in the U. S. “Bearing the multiracial child”, according to Gubar, “delivers the mother into a new conception of not simply admitting or acknowledging but embracing and loving difference” (Racechanges 226). In “1973” from her collection Assumptions (1985), Hacker writes a sonnet about reactions toward the birth of her biracial daughter:

“I’m pregnant,” I wrote to her in delight
from London, thirty, married, in print. A fools-
cap sheet scrawled slantwise with one minuscule
sentence came back. “I hope your child is white.”
I couldn’t tear the pieces small enough.
I hoped she’d be black as the ace of spades,
though hybrid beige heredity had made
that as unlikely as the spun-gold stuff
sprouted after her neonatal fur.
I grudgingly acknowledged her “good hair,”
which wasn’t, very, from my point of view.
“No tar brush left,” her father’s mother said.
“She’s Jewish and she’s white,” from her cranked bed
mine smugly snapped.

She’s Black. She is a Jew. (19)

Being a non-conformist and rebel, Hacker takes “delight” in shocking and upsetting her mother with the news of her pregnancy. Against the wishes of her mother, she is away in “London, thirty, married” to a black man. Her mother’s conventional racism is clear in her response, “I hope your child is white”. The expected prejudice sets Hacker off, wishing that “she’d be black as the ace of spades”, but conceding that with a light-skinned father (“hybrid beige”) that would be very “unlikely”. Hacker is equally upset when her mother-in-law is pleased that there is “no tar-brush left”. Revolting against both mother and mother-in-law, she asserts defiantly, “She’s Black. She is a Jew”. Hacker is also subverting the form by adding and moving the fifteenth line away from the body of the poem. In the short, curt sentences within one line, Hacker is clearly stating her daughter’s two races that are too significant to be joined in one sentence: “Black” and “Jew”. Challenging the racial consciousness of the age, Hacker asserts in “Open Windows” that “mixed races swell the lexicon” in the way that they add new concepts “Like Bedouin for sand, or Eskimo / for snow” (45).

By the same logic, Hacker’s formalism is innovative in its nomadic, subversive potential by defining itself in opposition to existing aesthetic assumptions. Hacker’s formalist practice, therefore, is not a conformation to the tradition of the father. Rather, it is transformation and development of an indistinct women’s tradition, as Finch argues, “embracing the female poetic tradition has been, for [women formalists], a meaningful form of feminist innovation” (“Female Tradition” 93).

 

Taking Notice: A Model of Feminist Nomadic Consciousness

 

Taking Notice is the first of Hacker’s collections to articulate and forge links with the female poetic tradition through integrating women’s experiences and feelings into poetic form. This is the first of her collections that addresses women and a wide, shifting range of their experiences. It has poems about her daughter Iva, her mother, and her female lovers. The book can be read as one extended taking and giving of notice in six formally diverse yet thematically connected sections: “Feeling and Form”; “Living in the Moment”; “The Hang-Glider’s Daughter”; “Occasions”; “La Fontaine De Vaucluse”; and “Taking Notice”.

The opening poem, “Feeling and Form”, is an announcement of this new direction. The articulation of personal “feeling” answers Rich’s call for a deeper engagement with “the sound of your own voice, naked”, and the “form” asserts defiance in continuing to use formal technique “to join and affirm the coexistent tradition of women poets using fixed forms in revisionary, adversarial, or indeed revolutionary stances” (Hacker, UV 26). As such, the title connects that which has been disconnected under dominant ideologies of free verse in women’s writing to articulate a nomadic consciousness. Hacker invites the reader to ‘take notice’ that “form – quite often traditional form – is part of what is being expressed and felt, as much a part of the feeling in a poem as the various voices of personal and social reality also present in it” (Lawrence 98). This feminist resisting and rethinking of the literary formal tradition is articulated directly in her use of “vessels” in the poem “Introductory Lines” from the collection Taking Notice, as she writes defiantly:

Women and other radicals who choose

venerable vessels for subversive use

affirm what Sophomore Survey often fails

to note: God and Anonymous are not white males.

“We always crafted language just as they did.

We have the use, and we reclaim the credit.” (FC 243)

Here, Hacker puts a twist on the meaning of “radical” as a woman who engages critically with patriarchy, but also someone who “reclaim[s] the credit”. She argues that formalism is not an exclusive male tradition as “God” and “Anonymous” writers are “not white males”. The situational irony that connects “venerable” with “subversive” shows her mixing high art with contemporary diction in an attempt to invigorate fixed traditions. Her use of “subversive” is a sanguine articulation of her feminist nomadic consciousness, where “the subversion of set conventions define the nomadic state”, as Braidotti observes (NS 26). Although the tradition is “problematic and less fully developed”, as Finch notes, nevertheless women poets “reclaim, glorify, and build on” the tradition of “Bradstreet, Wheatley, Sigourney, and legions of even less-known poets, lost poets, unpublished poets, oral poets” (“Female Tradition” 91). A female feminist poetics “is not based in the imitation of the fathers but in the reclamation of the unfinished work of silent, or silenced, foremothers” (91). Hacker reclaims her female formal tradition with the rhyming end pattern (“choose-use”, “fails-males”, and “did-credit”) as a conspicuous demonstration of female skill as equivalent to or surpassing male formalists.

Taking Notice offers a number of forms, from pantoums to canzones to sestinas. However, the sonnet is the predominate form that offers dialogue as well as structure for troublesome female relationships, as in the poem “July 19, 1979”:

I’ll write a sonnet just to get in form,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I must avoid the self-indulgent stance

of lovesick troubadours— that isn’t wise,

in spite of being in the South of France

with a capricious woman whose blue eyes

invest the genre with some relevance. (250)

Hacker’s choice of the sonnet shows her engagement with the traditional themes of love and romance, while she redefines this tradition to express lesbian love. In a 1993 anthology of twentieth-century American formalist women’s poetry, A Formal Feeling Comes, Annie Finch notes that “[Female] poets are reclaiming a formal inheritance more openly than women have done in many decades, and their work demonstrates that the long tradition of women’s formal poetry is evolving once again” (3). In an oeuvre that contains fifteen collections and spans over four decades, formalism, and in particular the sonnet, is the very essence of Hacker’s poetics. Hacker mostly writes using the Petrarchan sonnet.

“Taking Notice”, the title piece of the collection, is a significant example of how Hacker’s love poems are informed by her dialogues with the tradition of love sonnets. The poem is a sequence of twenty-five sonnets which announces Hacker’s lesbian identity as she positions herself in a tradition of lesbian women writers: Gertrude Stein, H.D., and Rich. Hacker begins a dialogue with Rich, the tradition of the sonnet, and womanly love by taking Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” from The Dream of a Common Language (1978) as the epigraph of the work:

two women together is a work

nothing in civilization has made simple, (35)

The lines above articulate a moving tribute as well as creative engagement with Rich when Hacker could not reply to Rich’s letter directly, preferring instead to begin and maintain a lifelong silent dialogue with Rich through form. In this respect, Hacker shows Rich that though she agrees with her, she can still connect “feeling with form” in an act of Braidottian critical consciousness that “resists settling into socially coded modes of thought and behaviour” (NS 28). Hacker explains this poetic dialogue: “But I did not have the courage to answer her letter and engage in what might have been another kind of dialogue. I think I have been attempting – by means of poems – to have that dialogue with her since” (UV 26). As she continues to write in formal verse, Hacker enters into a literary dialogue in an attempt to prove that a poetics of feminist consciousness can be written in metrical verse.

The epigraph shows Hacker looking back at Rich’s theme of a love affair between women and how it progresses. Rich’s “Twenty-One” opens with a tone of despair and hopelessness that reflects the bitter disappointments of the late 1970s that make a lesbian relationship difficult to sustain successfully. On the surface, Hacker’s poem opens on a not-so-bleak outlook, but similarly through the course of the poem the speaker is anxious and in doubt regarding the success of the relationship. The poem opens to the speaker conceding patriarchy’s dominance and strong presence over women’s lives in shaping and perpetuating female stereotypical images. Then, Hacker immediately moves to the challenge of lesbian love in line with Rich’s earlier articulation:

My child wants dolls, a tutu, that girls’ world made

pretty and facile. Sometimes. Sometimes I

want you around uncomplicatedly.

Work every day; love (the same one) every

night: old songs and new choir the parade

of coupled women whose fidelity

is a dyke icon. (288)

Her wish for “uncomplicated[ness]” is a multi-layered word that expresses difficulty on many levels. In the public sphere, it carries the weight of all the complications and obstacles that the 1980s heterosexual, patriarchal society imposes. Implicit in these obstacles are the different perceptions regarding homosexual relationships. Marginalised though they are as women, Hacker observes that lesbians are further marginalised because their feelings and experiences have been underestimated. In the context of American culture, when women engage sexually with one another and with men, according to Jane Ward, it is seen as “female sexual fluidity” (17), but the same culture equates heterosexual males’ “homosexual behavior with gay subjectivity” (20). Hacker criticises this view later in the sequence: “If a man sleeps with men, and women, / he’s queer: vide Wilde, Goodman, Gide, Verlaine. / A woman who does can be ‘passionately / heterosexual’ (said Norman Pearson of H.D.) / Anyone’s love with women doesn’t count” (290). In these lines, Hacker seeks to expose that women continue to be discriminated against within patriarchy, including the lesbian community.

Moreover, “uncomplicatedly” expresses the internal conflicts, tensions, and anxieties of a new relationship, as well as a newly discovered sexuality. These complications can be as challenging as society’s limitations, which can lead to another level of anxiety between the lovers, as Hacker admits in the sixth sonnet, “Angry, I speak, and pass the hurt to you, / your pencil-smudged face naked like a child’s. / Each time we don’t know what we’re getting into / or out of” (290). Pain is felt through both language and body as the speaker expresses her “hurt” through words and the addressee through a face “pencil-smudged” from crying. Hacker acknowledges such conflicts later in the poem as a form of self-inflicted destruction:

. . . We, women, patient mockers of our own

enterprise, are mined with self-destruction.

We build what we need. We wreck what we build. (291)

The speaker contemplates that a utopian image of their relationship would be to “Work every day; love (the same one) every / night: old songs and new choir the parade / of coupled women whose fidelity / is a dyke icon” (288). However, during the course of the poem, the speaker learns that fidelity is an unrealistic wish in any type of relationship. There is an implicit search by the speaker for things lacking in her heterosexual relationships: longevity and loyalty. This hope is complemented with a new-found energy and enthusiasm enacted in this public celebration of womanly love (“parade/of coupled women”), which is an announcement of affiliation to the lesbian community, in line with Rich’s public coming out a few years before Hacker. The blurb for the pamphlet edition of “Taking Notice”, published by the lesbian/feminist Out & Out states, “the sixth in a series of pamphlets documenting ideas important in the evolution of lesbian/feminism”. “Like Rich”, J.D. McClatchy notes, “[Hacker] has not only written a compelling humane poem, but touched the heart of our sexual politics” (Gunton and Stine 206).

The poem, ‘’Taking Notice’’, is not a characteristically feminist work, but it establishes a woman-centred world in which the default human perspective is female, and which envisions the transgressive potential of the lesbian identity that defies essentialist notions of the feminine. The strength of these sonnets is in the assertiveness of desire and the liberation to choose, as exemplified in the verb “want” that echoes Rich’s repeated use of the same verb in ‘’Twenty-One”. For example, in poem XI of “Twenty-One”, Rich desires to become a voyager in the female landscape:

Every peak is a crater. This is the law of volcanoes,

making them eternally and visibly female.

No height without depth, without a burning core,

though our straw soles shred on the hardened lava.

I want to travel with you to every sacred mountain

smoking within like the sibyl stooped over her tripod,

I want to reach for your hand as we scale the path,

to feel your arteries glowing in my clasp,

never failing to note the small, jewel-like flower

unfamiliar to us, nameless till we rename her,

that clings to the slowly altering rock –

that detail outside ourselves that brings us to ourselves,

was here before us, knew we would come, and sees beyond us.

(30)

Here the landscape is feminised as the “volcanoes” are “visibly female”. The landscape metaphor aligns the body with nature – the “burning core” with the “arteries glowing” and the “jewel-like flower” with the physical implication of the clitoris – to emphasise that the female is everywhere, in both land and body. Against the backdrop of the landscape, the verb “want” asserts the female lesbian desire and names it: “I want to travel with you to every sacred mountain /. . . / I want to reach for your hand as we scale the path”. The final lines show the speaker recognising the greater power “outside ourselves” of womanly love “that brings us to ourselves / was here before us, knew we would come, and sees beyond us”. In depicting a portrait of lesbian desire, Rich calls women to “rename” the “nameless” desire that is “unfamiliar” to them and that is analogous to her act of “re-vision”.

Similar to “Twenty-One”, “want” in “Taking Notice” articulates a conscious choice as an adult to love, be loved, and to cast her lot with women. In the repetition of the verb (twelve times in the sonnet sequence), the poem communicates the speaker’s need to configure an autonomous model of female subjectivity while simultaneously acknowledging and affirming the reality of lesbian identity and lesbian desire. In her daughter’s articulation, “want” is used for the sake of irony to juxtapose the desire for conformity as opposed to the desire for nonconformity. Clearly, “want” is significant in the rhetoric of this poem as a language of female empowerment and straightforward frankness that is a significant departure from “I don’t know what it is I want to happen” (81) in “Waiting” from Presentation Piece. Here, the third person speaker of her earlier poems becomes “I”, asserting her voice and female subjectivity as a mark of her emerging feminism. With this new-found decisiveness, the speaker is resolute on finding stability and fixity in her new relationships, but is somewhat doubtful given that all her previous relationships have been with men. She needs the guidance and reassurance of a more experienced woman to quell her doubts, as she expresses in the second-half of sonnet one:

. . . You are right: if we

came to new love and friendship with a sad

baggage of endings, we would come in bad

faith, and bring, rooted already, seed

of a splitting. Serial monogamy

is cogwheeled hurt . . .  (288)

In the lines above, the speaker admits that a “new” relationship is doomed if disappointments are carried from previous experiences.  She uses the metaphor of emotional “baggage” to suggest a traveller that journeys to new relationships, carrying along “bad faith” instead of optimistic anticipations. In the metaphor of plant reproduction, “seed” connotes sperm in its fertile dispersal of “bad faith” that is “rooted” in a prior relationship that “splits” the “new love and friendship” before it has a chance to develop. “Serial” and “cogwheeled” create the image of a never-ending cycle of “hurt”, which passes back and forth between lovers. These images communicate a fear of failure because of her negative heterosexual experiences. The speaker is not only rethinking her sexuality and feminist subjectivity in this sonnet sequence, but she is also reconsidering her approach to love and friendship in light of a new lesbian relationship.

To narrate a love affair, Hacker uses the different parts of the first sonnet to articulate different views about the relationship by posing a tension in the first part and then resolving it in the second part. The octave expresses the speaker’s unrealistic desires about love, and the sestet expresses her lover’s rational voice. This juxtaposition seems to contrast a young, fastidious lover in the speaker’s desire, “I / want you around uncomplicatedly” (288), with a mature and experienced one when the speaker concedes, “You are right” (288). Hacker subverts the traditional themes of heterosexual love as she writes to a woman by changing the sonnet division between sestet and octet and adding a couplet at the end. This transformation seeks to subvert and take ownership of the form, while engaging with its amorous tradition. Taking the liberty to move up the volta, or turn, between these parts, suggests a feminist ethics in presenting a balance of viewpoints. To release the tension, the relationship is contrasted with the quotidian in the last two lines: “The neighbour’s tireless radio sings lies / through the thin wall behind my desk and bed” (288).

The personal and direct address toward her lover is also extended to another kind of complicated love: the relationship between Hacker and her mother. In a 1983 letter, Rich commends Hacker on this new theme in her writing, describing Hacker’s words as “powerful and heart-breaking, a new kind of voice in your work – brava!”[15] Hacker’s fresh insistence on truth responds to Rich’s emphasis on truthful expression in women’s writing: “I think women poets today . . . have a responsibility to work out of our own truths: a responsibility to poetry and to our own and each other’s lives”.[16] Hacker delineates the narrow-mindedness and conventionality that made her mother a constant source of frustration, fear, and dislike as she was growing up:

She twists scraps of her hair in unshelled snails

crossed by two hairpins. It takes forty-five

minutes. I’m twelve. I’ve come to pee. I’ve

left Amazing Stories and Weird Tales

in the hamper. “Don’t believe what you read.

Women who let men use them are worse than

whores. Men despise them. I can understand

prostitutes, never ‘free love.’’’ Not freed

to tell her what I thought of More Than Human,

I wipe between my mottled oversized

girl-haunches. I’ll be one of the despised,

I know, as she forbids with her woman’s

body, flaccid, gaunt in a greyed nightgown,

something more culpable for us than “men.” (289)

Here, Hacker reflects critically on her troublesome relationship with her mother in the way she used to terrorise and oppress her into staying chaste by making comparisons between a woman who experiences love with her body and a woman who sells her body for sex. On the other hand, now as an adult woman, Hacker reflects intellectually and emotionally on the pressure that her mother was always under as a housewife, mother, and full-time worker. As a woman obsessed with the body and its different articulations, Hacker contemplates her mother’s asexual appearance and what it meant in terms of her sexual relationship with her father. Hacker is repelled at how her mother made her appearance deliberately hideous with the “scraps of her hair in unshelled snails” wearing the “greyed nightgown”, looking “flaccid” and “gaunt” before going to bed. The paradoxical irony here is that though her mother made no effort for her father, she cares that “men despise” women “who let men use them” making them “worse than whores”. An additional irony is that prostitution is understandable, but not “free love”. In her beliefs, Hacker’s mother reflects the conservatism of the 1950s towards sexuality (Dicker 64).

Other than their social beliefs, the main difference between Hacker and her mother is her mother’s distrust of language: “Don’t believe what you read”. In the space of one sonnet, Hacker lists three publications that she was reading at twelve: Amazing Stories (1926-1939), Weird Tales (1923-1940), and More than Human (1953). Reading these early science fiction magazines and books were instrumental in shaping Hacker’s artistic imagination. Her engagement with language began at a very early age, as she explains to Annie Finch in an interview:

The first poem I can remember writing which was a bit more than doggerel was a sonnet, written when I was twelve, about almost “of course,” mortality. It seemed, then, very natural to me to try writing a sonnet—and, on the cusp of puberty, what would it be about but sex or death? I had already read and re-read scores of sonnets: by Shakespeare, by Dylan Thomas, by Millay, by e.e. cummings. Cummings was a favorite of many reading addicted teenagers of my generation. (“An Interview”)

According to this interview, Hacker was writing sonnets at the time her mother was telling her not to “believe what you read”. These contrasts developed Hacker’s nomadic consciousness in “not taking any kind of identity as permanent” (NS 57), thus understanding and acknowledging generation gaps and the different experiences women go through. Hacker’s reflections on her mother have made her consider and fear how her bouts of frustration and rage might similarly affect her relationship with her own daughter:

. . . In

another room, my daughter, home from school,

audibly murmurs “spanking, stupid, angry

voice,”  a closet drama where I am

played second-hand to unresisting doll

daughters. Mother and daughter both, I see

myself, the furious and unforgiven;

myself, the terrified and terrible;

the child punished into autonomy;

the unhealed woman hearing her own voice damn

her to the nightmares of the brooding girl. (294)

Hacker is intent on showing honesty in all her female relationships, even with her daughter. The speaker sees herself as both “mother and daughter”: she is “furious’’ and ‘’terrified’’ towards her mother and ‘’unforgiven” and ‘’terrible’’ in her daughter’s eyes. This juxtaposition of emotions and alliteration of the sounds (‘f’ with “furious-unforgiven”, and ‘t’ with “terrified-terrible”) highlight the speaker’s identification with the child’s emotions and reaction, and emphasises the blurring of female roles across different generations. This matrilineal connection becomes more significant in her work as Hacker begins to lead a woman-identified life that revolves around her female friends, peers, and family. Her personal life becomes increasingly reflected in her art as these scenes with her mother and daughter create a narrative that is bolder and stronger than before. These raw experiences show a deeper identification with her feelings of anger, frustration and deep love that are brought out by these relationships to women. In taking the personal and the private as subject matter for her art, Hacker forms her poetry from her life experiences.

In addition to the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the poem examines the complicated role that desire plays in human relationships: it can be a coercive force just as it is a passionate one. The first four lines of the third sonnet play out the speaker’s earlier fear of separation. Using the oxymoron “jackbooted choreography”, the speaker attempts to describe how the relationship is severed when the emotional pain that feels like “hobnailed cabrioles across a brain” pulls “them apart” rather than pulls “lovers together”:

When that jackbooted choreography

sends hobnailed cabrioles across a brain,

the stoked iron pulling lovers together pulls

them apart. Through the ecstatic reverie

of hands, eyes, mouths, our sacrifices’ silken

sparking, heraldic plants and animals

alive on our tender cartography,

the homesick victim glimpses the coast of pain,

hears the familiar argot of denial.

Woman I love, as old, as new to me

as any moment of delight risked in

my lumpy heretofore unbeautiful

skin, if I lost myself in you I’d be

no better lost than any other woman. (289)

However, underneath this “choreography” of the body, the speaker uses a language of passionate love and feminist assertion of her sexual needs. Here, the body ­– specifically a female body – is central to the speaker’s desire. In the speaker’s passion, she is obsessed with the body as it is engulfed in an “ecstatic reverie” of “[H]ands, eyes, [and] mouths”. Eroticism is depicted as the sonic concatenation of ‘s’s suggests the smooth, sensuality of skin: “ecstatic”, “sacrifices”, “silken”, and “sparking”. In this early treatment of the female body, Hacker foregrounds the body as a means of desire that is as explicit in its passions as it is of its “pain[s]”. In Hacker’s writing, Catherine Cucinella notes that the body:

manifests as the visible marker as well as the active agent of desire, and it is the thing that suffers punishment or restriction in order to contain excessive or inappropriate desires. The body carries extreme significance within the register of sexual desire and sexuality. (113)

Elizabeth Grosz describes this body-desire synthesis as a “cartography of the body”: “The body is quite literally rewritten, traced over, by desire. Desire is based on a veritable cartography of the body (one’s own as well as that of the other)” (Volatile Bodies 56). The body as ‘‘agent of desire’’ appears again in “Future Conditional”, from Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986)This ‘novel in verse’ describes Hacker’s fantasy of her first sexual encounter with Rachael and depicts the body as text metaphor in that both Hacker’s and her lover’s body are compared to a text:

. . . O let me, please,

hands in your hair, drink in your mouth. Sweetheart,

your body is a text I need the art

to be constructed by.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . I’ll find the hook,

release promised abundance to this want,

while your hands, please, here and here, exigent

and certain, open this; it is, this book,

made for your hands to read, your mouth to use. (50)

The speaker’s desire drives her to plead “O let me, please” in order to caress and experience Rachael’s body with the speaker’s “hands in [her] hair” and to “drink in [her] mouth”. Her lover’s body becomes the text that guides and constructs her own sexual knowledge: “Sweetheart, / your body is a text I need the art / to be constructed by”. As the speaker undresses her lover, as Keller points out, “her own body becomes a text (book) for the lover’s use . . . Opening her legs of the lips of her vagina to expose the clitoris merges with the act of opening the book of sonnets” (180-81). Thus, textual analogy is inscribed on the lovers’ bodies to signify sexual desire.

“Taking Notice” exemplifies this same reimagining of the body. As such, in her first articulation of lesbian desire, Hacker uses the metaphors of body choreography and body cartography to depict the intersection of nature and civilisation. She aligns the female body with nature as the “plants and animals” on the lovers’ bodies come “alive” to engage in a primordial choreography, which together with the “heraldic” designs become a ceremonial announcement, a proclamation of both an “old” practice and “new” feelings and joy. Within the context of lesbian love, these women metaphorically wear their desire with bravery and defiance like heraldic symbols. The poet creates a connection between her body and the sonnet’s body as the enjambment of the lines reveals an immediacy and flow of emotion that is woman-identified, as suggested by the first and last words of the last five lines of the sonnet: “woman /. . ./ woman”.

The lovers’ physical geography becomes a map of primitive and, as Rich puts it, “rename[d]” desires. Imagining the body as map makes the hands, eyes, and mouths landmarks of desire that enact a nomadic consciousness that “aims to rethink the unity of the subject” (NS 57) and seems to create a plurality of female pleasures that echoes Luce Irigaray’s view of the significance of female sex organs in the experience of erotic pleasure in This Sex Which is Not One (1985). Irigaray writes,

But woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. She finds pleasure almost anywhere. Even if we refrain from invoking the hystericization of her entire body, the geography of her pleasure is far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle, than is commonly imagined-in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness. (28)

For Irigaray, female sexuality and female pleasure are located specifically on the female body, which is perceived not as one sex organ but as a multiplicity of them. It is this aspect of multiplicity that connects Braidotti’s feminist nomadic subject to Irigaray’s notion of sexual difference that “combines issues of embodiment with an acute awareness of complexity and multiplicity and [it] defends a nonunitary vision of the subject in general and of the feminine in particular” (78). This plurality of pleasure is also seen in another poem from the same collection, “Canzone”, where Hacker writes:

Consider the three functions of the tongue:

taste, speech, the telegraphy of pleasure,

are not confused in any human tongue;

yet, sinewy and singular, the tongue

accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ

can. (284)

The title of the poem, “Canzone”, plays on its Italian meaning as “song” to be a song that is sung to and by part of the body – the tongue. Hacker examines the many meanings of “tongue”: as an organ of taste, communication, sex – even as a delicatessen meat. Though these functions vary, she joins them all with the feeling of “pleasure”. These denotations are implied with the repetition of the five key words that determine the meaning and the movement of the poem: “tongue”, “pleasure”, “organ”, “give”, and “taste”. Using one organ to imagine diverse pleasures, Hacker begins to view her body as a complex and nonunitary structure of desire that embodies not one, but as Irigaray puts it, a “geography of her pleasure”.

This examination continues throughout the poem as the speaker begins with an exploration of “taste” that is “multiplicitous [in] its pleasure” and “complex [in] its execution” in the second stanza (284). In the third stanza, she contemplates the pleasurable “flavor to words, and words to flavor” in the creation of language: “Making words, we give / the private contemplations of each organ / to the others, and to others, organ- / ize sensations into thoughts” (285). In the last stanza, she identifies this multiplicity of sensations as mulitlayered and diverse in that “pleasure / means something, and something different, for each organ; / each person, too” (285). Hacker ends “Canzone” with the five-line envoi that moves from the physical to the “multi-sensual organ” of the “memory”:

But I would rather think about your tongue

experiencing and transmitting pleasure

to one or another multi-sensual organ

  • like memory. Whoever wants to give

only one meaning to that, has untutored taste. (286)

This progression into the realm of the mind seeks to create a sequence of sensory sensations as the basis for a nomadic consciousness that “combines coherence with mobility . . . linking body and mind in a new set of intensive and often intransitive transitions” (Braidotti, NS 57). Gratification does not take on fully the pleasure of one organ; rather, it continues to gratify from a place where human perception ultimately resides – in the memory. As such, memory also becomes an organ of pleasure as it creates complex “meaning[s]” of the different “flavor[s]” as each physical sensation is repeated throughout the poem. The tongue, then, serves as a vehicle for “communion”, for the intimate act of taste, speech, and sexual pleasure, which allows for the “experiencing and transmitting pleasure” between self and other, poet and reader.

Throughout this chapter, I have shown how Hacker’s early correspondence with Adrienne Rich was influential in the shift in her early work from dialogues in the male poetic tradition to asserting her engagement with a female formal tradition. This move to a feminist formalist poetics from 1980 shows a shift in the speaking subject’s relationship to the body from one that isolates the body from both language and feeling to a feminist poetics that explicitly connects female experience and erotic pleasure with verbal communication using traditional poetic forms. In her new articulation of lesbian desire, the lesbian body becomes a map of desire and a vehicle for understanding both homosexual love and countering essentialist views of the female body. Hacker’s awareness that female experience is a constant process of learning and change is articulated at the end of “Taking Notice”:

. . . Can I believe

persistent love demands change, not forgive-

ness, accept the hard gift of your different sight? (300)

The “different sight” reflects her understanding of the diversity of female experiences and its relation to individual perception. Hacker’s nonconformist lifestyle and resistance to hegemonic, conventional views of art and subjectivity reflects Braidotti’s nomadic consciousness and underscores the origins of her nomadic subjectivity in her early poetry. Hacker acknowledges the historical alliance of traditional forms with patriarchal thinking, but seeks to downplay the antagonism and focus on “reclaim[ing]” a female formal tradition. As such, Hacker’s feminist poetics demonstrates a self that is informed, but not dominated, by tradition, as she participates in defining that tradition alongside her “chang[ing]” subjectivity. The following chapters address the thematic and formal shifts in her feminist poetics. In the next chapter, I examine the speaking subject’s changing relationship to the female body as a result of her breast cancer experience. This trauma of the body allows her to connect to the traumas of other bodies in history when the scar becomes a historical mark of suffering and implicates the body in Jewish history and identity.


[1] Many of Hacker’s writings contrast her mother, Hilda, to her mother-in-law, Margaret Delany. Though Hacker separated from Delany in 1976, she maintained good relations with Margaret who she describes as “comfortable, intelligent, food-and-theatre-and-travel-and –friend-loving-middle-aged woman” (Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 1 June 1977. Box, 5, Folder 25. JRP).

[2] Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 18 June 1977. Box 5, Folder 26. JRP.

[3] Hacker, letter to Adrienne Rich. 8 Oct. 1976. Box 2, Folder 7. MHP.

[4] Samuel Delany provides this sociohistorical context in his book The Motion of Light in Water (1988).

[5] Owen, Paul. “St. Mark’s Place: is this the coolest street in America?” The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/27/st-marks-place-the-many-lives-of-americas-coolest-street.

[6] Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 6 July 1977. Box 5, Folder 26. JRP.

[7] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 3 Oct. 1976. Box 1, Folder 4. MHP.

[8] Hacker, letter to Joanna Russ. 28 Sept. 1975. Box 5, Folder 20. JRP.

[9] Ibid. 2 Nov. 1976.

[10] Ibid. 12 Oct. 1976.

[11] Ibid. 28 Sept. 1975.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 14 Aug. 1976.

[14] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 3 Oct. 1976. Box 1, Folder 4. MHP.

[15] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 15 Mar. 1983. Box 1, Folder 12. MHP.

[16] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 3 Oct. 1976. Box 1, Folder 4. MHP.



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