Palimpsest—text that has been incompletely erased so that another text can be written over it, often leaving legible traces of the old text underneath—is a word that recurs in Marilyn Hacker’s latest collection of poems, Names, and it stands as a unifying concept in this accomplished book, for the words and spirits of many other poets and poems float on the surface and underneath each of these pieces. It’s also interesting to consider this word as a synonym for form, of which Hacker is one of our greatest contemporary practitioners, because once readers identify the form of a poem, it gives us access to an entire history and tradition into which the poem we’re reading falls. As I read and reread the poems here, these two ideas greatly enriched the cross-cultural journey this book embarks on, as Hacker contemplates the state of the world today, with the ubiquitous presence of war as its backdrop, and adds her voice, her name, to the many poets from different cultures and eras who have not looked away from these conflicts, but instead tried to find the humanity that often gets silenced by the propaganda and polarizing speeches of hostile times.
An introduction to a few of the forms Hacker tackles anew in this collection gives us a great entry point to this complicated book. Of course, there are interesting sonnets found here, as Hacker proved she is a master of in Love, Death and the Changing of Seasons, a beautiful book that tells a complete love story between two women in a sonnet series that includes several crowns of sonnets. Yet, it’s the other forms she’s discovered since then that illuminate the themes I mentioned above. There are several ghazals here, an Arabic form that the poet Agha Shahid Ali popularized, in which a simple monorhyme repeats in the seemingly unrelated couplets that make up its stanzas. In the context of Names, its origins in the Middle East are especially poignant and Hacker plays on those associations, as in “Ghazal: Myself” (45), where she questions:
Do I think my averted glance
nullifies suffering? First of all, I maim myself.
In those two simple lines, she does what every great political poet must, implicate oneself in the problem and offer a solution for all: to not look away from the strife in other parts of the world, or risk the tension caused by ignoring human suffering.
Another form she brings to life here is the glose, a French form in which the lines from a single stanza of another poem become the final lines in each stanza of a new poem, a palimpsest in the most literal way. Hacker chooses stanzas from many antiwar poets to riff off of, including Anna Akhmatova, perhaps the most famous female poet of resistance, who wrote verse against Stalinish Russia from within and never looked away from its atrocities. With her lines as a scaffold, Hacker warns how the “human voice [is] distorted…in speeches,” but “the voice of the wind” is more easily understood, a call to stop listening to “the voice of man” (36) who can twist the truth, but instead to be still and silent, to listen to the wisdom within, symbolized here by the wind, a force to which everyone, including Hacker at the beginning of the twenty-first century and Akhmatova at the turn of the twentieth, has access.
There are more forms to discover here, including rengas, lauds, and free verses that expertly mimic and converse with poets as diverse as Alfred Corn and Hayden Carruth, and part of the joy is digging under these texts to find where these forms came from, or what the poets they talk to lived through, a continual excavation through the palimpsests Hacker builds. And through this experience comes this book’s greatest achievement, which is to show us how our human impulse to create with language our stories, our histories, all the building blocks that give us names and identities, is what ties us together and not what separates us, no matter how hard politicians and global leaders try to use these same tools to keep us apart.