Marilyn Hacker is the author of twelve books of poems, including Names (Norton, 2009), Essays on Departure (Carcanet Press, UK, 2006) and Desesperanto (Norton, 2003).
Her ten volumes of translations from the French include Marie Etienne’s King of a Hundred Horsemen (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2008) which received the 2007 Robert Fagles Translation Prize and the 2009 American PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Nettles (The Graywolf Press, 2008).
She is a past recipient of the Lenore Marshall Award, the Poets’ Prize, the National Book Award and two Lambda Literary Awards, and is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
For Julie Fay
We liked its name, those ones, feminine plural.
We imagined the abandoned village
inhabited by sisters and sororal
friends, restoring walls and foliage.
Each house could have a window on the lake,
that now were ruins on the shore, a pillaged
battleground, the site of an earthquake
softened by bushes like a cemetery?
Evacuated by decree, to make
a giant oxbow where there was a valley.
The water licked the town’s limits, and stopped.
The town was saved from drowning, but kept empty.
One evening’s rhythms let us interrupt
a drive toward dinner in Lodève, to swerve
down where a gouged raw path made an abrupt
plunge to the water, following the curve
of red clay foothills. Mississippian.
to test your four-wheel drive, or test your nerve,
you said when we were safely parked. The sun
glare behind the windshield, gilt the swells
of water. We got out. Your Indian
print dress blew back around you; your hair fell
glowing across your throat. “You ought to be
painted like that, the patron saint of Celles
qui vagabondent autour d’une autre vie.”
Scrub oak reclaimed what once was the café.
Swallows swooped through what once was the mairie,
banked into a thermal, veered halfway
across the water, toward a thicketed
dusk-dappled hill, then back, elegant play
of gliders celebrant above our heads,
spiraling in the current’s arabesque.
“If we were the evacuees,” you said,
“it wouldn’t be so fucking picturesque
to live in Clermont in an HLM.
They were the last ones anybody asked
“if making up this place was good for them
And we are making them up, just as much
as sorceresses flocked here for the name.”
We made our way through nascent underbrush
to climb the mayor’s ragweed-shattered stairs.
Elbow to elbow, though we didn’t touch,
we stood on the wind-littered terrace, where
we watched the sun continue its descent.
We drove away before it disappeared
leaving Those Ones lapped by revenant
shadows, now the cicadas’ choral
song broke for nightfall, leaving Celles silent
like us, feminine plural, transient.
From Essays on Departure, Carcanet Press, 2006
JEAN-MICHEL GALIBERT, ÉPICIER À SAINT-JEAN-DE-FOS
for Guy Goffette
Reconstitute a sense to make of absence
in the still heat of noon, south, summer
where spindled years unravel and unwind.
A hound bays behind a fence. An old white van
beached beneath oleander in a yard
rusts where it ran down, where something came to grief.
Some summers, joy illuminated grief
and solitude was savory. Then, absence
was a prelude, then stiff, starched, flag-striped yards
of sheet on a clothesline flapped in a sudden summer
gust, like the curtains on a caravan
parked in the town square, billowing with wind,
while children anticipated drumrolls, wind
instruments, brasses, florid joy and grief
mimed close to home. From the striped awning of a van
whiffs of merguez fried with onions, smell whose absence
would be a small, real rift in the stuff of summer.
Would have been. The dog paces in his three square yards
of territory, the paved part of a yard
where jasmine and oleander wind
their ribboned leaves like schoolgirls starting summer
vacation. Decline “departure,” decline “grief,”
compose an essay illustrating absence
using, for instance, the abandoned van
that used to be, let’s say, the grocer’s van
which parked in Wednesdays opposite the schoolyard
and the children who were present, who were absent.
Women came up in print dresses, cardigans, wind-
breakers, seasons changing, even grief
fading like the painted sign in summer
sun, winter rain. After a few winters, springs, summers
the bright sign was illegible, the van
rusted, someone had grown into grief.
The van is parked in the grocer’s son’s back yard,
its windows shattered, spiderwebbed. The wind
blows through it, marks itself present in that absence.
The grocer’s sun sat in the van each summer
morning that first year. Even grief was absent
as the wind unwound the streamers in his yard.
From Desesperanto, W.W. Norton, 2003
For Geneviève Pastre
The spiral of a story in an ear:
September, two years after the armistice
that ended the disastrous drôle de guerre.
A veteran, convinced to re-enlist,
(he’d have a good pension when he retired)
your father, fifty, was a prisoner.
Morning: in the small vineyard that was his,
three sisters and their mother, out with shears
and a basket, cutting table grapes
on the slope below the Causse. This year
(you are the middle sister, seventeen )
you’d be going into hypokhâgne
at the Lycée Fénélon. A line
of men came up the hill, intent as ants,
in stained and dusty Wehrmacht uniforms.
They trudged up towards the Pas de L’Escalette.
You pictured that strait rocky pass, a site
for maquisards in ambush? When you turned,
you saw Françoise’s face was white as paste.
Standing before your mother, gaunt, sunburned
and muddy, was a German officer.
He wiped his palms, schoolboyish, on his pants
and, in approximate, respectful French
requested , not demanded, food from her
(if his request could not be a command).
She cut a bunch of grapes with the knife-blade
shears, both lustrous in the morning shade.
He took it, thanked her, backed off, and diminished
to be reintegrated in the line as
it snaked up towards the Causse. Her trembling hand
clutching the sécateurs, dropped to her skirt.
Half moons under her armpits, and a stench
of fear on the breeze. She held her shoulders braced.
“I thought of your father,” she half-explained
and half-implored, looking down at the dirt.
At school, they had you tear out all of Heine’s
poems from the text of German poetry.
He was a decadent; he was a Jew.
The teachers could not teach his work – but you
could read the excised pages on your own.
At least you thought that was what they implied,
and read the poems, and memorized a few
and wrote an (unread) essay when you’d finished.
In forty-five, your father, fifty-five
came home. Most of the other prisoners died.
Frost-bitten, kidneys shot, he was alive.
You were an agrégée, rebellious, grown;
barely interrogated his silence.
When he learned about the deportees,
betrayed, stripped of their rank as citizens
as if humanity could be revoked,
his story went into the family’s
armoire with patched sheets, has not been aired since.
Years later, you became the one who spoke.
You are a writer in your seventies.
The spiral of a story in your ear
for once is not a story of your own.
A friend, a translator of Japanese,
showed you a just-published inédit
by a late Nippon master, who was
your sister’s lover: that same dark-browed Françoise
who died of breast cancer at forty-three
after a decade in Kyoto. He
claimed she had been an “incident,” naïve
enough to wait for him, enough to grieve
when he married. She made his language hers.
And his story?
A German officer,
half-starved, enters a garden, where a French
farm woman, all alone and almost young,
is picking fruit. In his few words of her tongue
he asks for sustenance. She cuts a bunch
of grapes for him. He remembers her
for years. He goes back after the war
(unharmed, presumably denazified)
to find her. She, of course, has disappeared.
You imagine the scene that this inferred:
the way she would have told it, with an ocean
between her and her sisters and her mother
in a non-cognate language she had mastered:
fear breaching the brief maternal garden,
the writer’s mind already moving past her,
filing her story, their intimacy
erased in the retelling, as the three
sisters are gone. An emblematic woman
(but with the largesse of her devotion
for the now doubly absent prisoner,
and her fear, too, now given to the invader)
remains, the icon that, somehow, he made her.
into, even if he made it for her.
You don’t have to imagine how she died.
You were with her. Your grief is mandatory
and quotidian. But you would rather
uncoil a spiral of the path that brought her
back to the Causse. Dawn rain left the hillside
scented with pine and sage. Wind in a hurry
to move whispered the headlines in patois:
transhumance, harvest, an absence of war
as if it were itself an absent father.
A woman in an orchard with three daughters
imagining a man somewhere who suffered,
the dust-bloomed grapes that nonetheless she proffered
to an intrusive and familiar other:
What can you do but tell someone the story?
From Desesperanto, W.W. Norton, 2003
All poems on this post: © Marilyn Hacker
Photo: Margaretta Mitchell
Published with the permission of Marilyn Hacker