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‘Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014’ by Marilyn Hacker

‘Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014’ by Marilyn Hacker

Author: Julie R. Enszer

March 25, 2015


Marilyn Hacker takes the title for her newest collection, A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014, from a crown of sonnets with the same name. “A Stranger’s Mirror” begins—and, of course, ends as is the crown of sonnet convention—with this line: “Beside her bookshelves, in his winter coat.” Written in the third person about “a woman in her sixties” with “creased lips and crepey throat,” the woman at the center of the poem resists wondering about disasters she “might well precipitate / if her neck were smooth. If she had breasts.” Exploring themes of aging and mortality alongside persistent questions about sexuality and desire, war and peace, justice and witness, A Stranger’s Mirror gathers twenty-five new poems with some of Hacker’s best poems from the past two decades.

Framing her newest work with a crown of sonnets is fitting. A Stranger’s Mirror demonstrates Hacker’s continued formal mastery; she effortlessly spins one sonnet into two, then three, then seven, leaving readers always breathless for more. She lives inside sonnets, pantoums, sestinas; and, like a fine designer, she reimagines these form for today’s lives: new colors, new furniture, new accent walls. With each new poem shaped into an old forms, Hacker breathes new life; she makes poetic forms meaningful, relevant, fresh. Still, Hacker’s genius is not simply formalism. She transforms form, yes, and she alchemizes language. Consider these lines from fourth sonnet in the crown “A Stranger’s Mirror:”

The words she wants are in some padlocked box
whose combination she’s incapable
of calling from the incoherent babble
of panic and despair, of dream that shocks
her out of brief and febrile sleep.

These lines reveal the artfulness of Hacker’s language, word by word. The dense consonance of the “padlocked box” continues with the sonic concatenation of ‘c’s: combination, incapable, calling, incoherent, panic. Hacker’s diction is thick and layered. It is also playful. She describes sleep as brief and febrile, two words nearly anagrams of one another. And, she is just getting started. The sonnet continues:

________________________The lacks,
the slack, the slide, the sunrise about rubble—
is that all, all want, that heat, all need,
that model of unspeakable obsession,
senile in promise, infantile in greed,
horseblindered to the world beyond its skin?

She moves the consonance from the fricative shocks and lacks to the sibilant slack, slide, and sunrise. She covers the life cycle from infantile to senile, all building for the final couplet, a question: “How much despair is clinical depression,/and how much what they still call mortal sin?”

Uniting the psychological with the spiritual, Hacker holds up a mirror to our human condition, filling the formal sonnet with language so taut, so highly charged, that it simply dazzles with its power and complexity.

In the collection Winter Numbers, Hacker begins the poem “Nearly a Valediction” (included in A Stranger’s Mirror) with these words: “You happened to me.”

Marilyn Hacker happened to me when I was eighteen years old. Sitting in the graduate library at the University of Michigan, I opened the library bound version of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, and I was transfixed. She happened to me.

She continues “Nearly a Valediction” with: “You were as deep down as I’ve ever been. / You were inside me like my pulse.” Then, she write, “when you were gone, / swaddled in strange air I was that alone / again, inventing life left after you.”

These are the words of a poet that I know and love on the page, in my hands, bound and glued on rich, creamy paper. These are the words of a poet, a lesbian, who gives voice and language to lesbian experience. By experience, I do not mean the condition of being alive in the world—of walking through the streets, of making breakfast in the morning, meeting with friends at night. Although these types of daily aliveness are present in Hacker’s poetry and they are part of her evocation of lesbian experience, by experience I mean the experience of being in a body that wants to touch, intimately and desperately, other women, a body that responds to other women, to their touch, to their eyes, to their backs, their legs, their minds. Hacker gives language to lesbian desire and to the myriad expressions of lesbian sexuality. Remember, she wrote, “You were as deep down as I’ve ever been. / You were inside me like my pulse.” She happened to me; she was inside me like my pulse.

Hacker’s poems make me remember lovers, how I lost them, how I left them; how when they were gone, I was again inventing life anew. Reading Hacker, lovers always seem to leave, but Marilyn Hacker? She always stays. Always writes, always explores. Always leads me to new places.

Here is one truth: there is not a poet more central to my reading history. Not another poet that I have loved so well and so fiercely over the past thirty years of my reading life.


In the collection Winter Numbers, Hacker begins the poem “Nearly a Valediction” (included in A Stranger’s Mirror) with these words: “You happened to me.”


While the title of A Stranger’s Mirror takes its name from a crown of sonnet, one of the exciting aspects of Hacker’s recent work is her attention to poetic forms outside western traditions. At least four new ghazals appear in A Stranger’s Mirror. The ghazal, a series of couplets with a rhyme scheme and refrain, has roots in seventh-century Arabia and has been used by poets writing in Persian, Urdu, Hindi, and Pashto, among other languages. Introduced to US poetry by Agha Shahid Ali, the ghazal now enjoys great popularity and recognition.

For Hacker, the ghazal has important political implications. Writing in a form that originates in the Middle East at a time when growing Islamophobia and intolerance for people, ideas, and expressions outside the western milieu surrounds western English-language readers, Hacker uses the form to challenge contemporary provincialism. In “Ghazal: Outside the door,” one couplet reads, “Light in the stairwell, seen through the judas-hole: / is that the visitor you longed for or you feared outside the door?” Exploring the nature of inside and outside in this poem, Hacker indicts hypocrisy in contemporary diplomacy with this couplet, “The diplomat entering the leader’s office / forgets the Copt, the communist, the Kurd outside the door.” In her bold vision of the world, which can hold many people—and moral crises—at once, Hacker links Copts, communists, and Kurds. In the final stanza, she writes, “The revolutionaries’ nameless laundress / wonders “What happens to a dream deferred?” outside the door.” Giving voice to nameless women laboring for revolution while repeating the words of Langston Hughes, this couplet and the poem as a whole demonstrate Hacker’s fierce political analysis, always artfully rendered in her poetry.

Ghazals are not the only new form Hacker engages in her recent work. She includes “Râbi’a’s Renga” in A Stranger’s Mirror. Renga is a Japanese form of collaborative poetry. Hacker publisher collaborative rengas with Deema K. Shehabi in the collection Diaspo/Renga. These collaborative engagements demonstrate Hacker’s continued commitments to building communities of poetry. She builds poetic exchanges through her work in collaborative poetry and translation, affirming poetry as a passport to travel the world.


I measure the years of my life by when I first read Hacker’s work, starting with Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, then moving backward through Assumptions, Taking Notice (a favorite), Separations, and Presentation Piece, then reading collection by collection when each came out. As Leslie says to Kevin in Saint Elmo’s Fire when she was breaking up with Alec, There were others, of course, boys really. But Alec was the first. I feel as Leslie does about Alec: Marilyn was the first. The first poet that I loved, the first poet that I read obsessively.

Going Back to the River was the first book I read by Hacker immediately upon its release. It may have been the first hardback copy of a poetry book I ever purchased. It seemed so expensive, so indulgent as a senior in college, but I had to own the new Marilyn Hacker as soon as it arrived at the local independent bookstore.

I read it quickly, greedly. Electrified. Then, I read slowly, somberly. I cried. This book embodied the thing to which I wanted to dedicate my life.

After six weeks, maybe two month, Going Back to the River was familiar, well-read, beloved, yes, but already I yearned for a new collection of Hacker poetry. It was an ache. Her books could not come fast enough for me. After Going Back, I was left with a collection of the earlier books, dog-eared. The spine of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons broke. The glue crumbled in my hands, the pages fluttered onto the bed as I lay reading. Still, I loved those sonnets. I imagined myself grown with lovers like Hacker, writing those poems.

It was an interminable four-year wait from Going Back to Winter Numbers. Searching poetry journals—the ones available to me at local bookstores in the Detroit area—I wondered, What is she doing? Why is she not writing more poems for me? Why is she not publishing them? Am I missing them? What if she never writes another book again? This is what time is like, to love, to obsess, as a young person. The months and years are long. We want to drink everything from those we love.

A bookseller at Prairie Lights in Iowa City told me that Winter Numbers was coming. He consulted a giant book with onion-skin pages. Yes, yes, he confirmed. A new Hacker collection. Sometime in spring. This was before the ease of searching Amazon, before next day delivery. Waiting for her new book to arrive, the winter months seemed dark, never-ending.

In truth, it has been like this for me between every Hacker collection. I waited for A Stranger’s Mirror as if I were twenty again. In six weeks, I will reread all her work starting from the beginning. Then completing the cycle, I will be disconsolate, begin searching Amazon again for the next Hacker collection.


A Stranger’s Mirror includes four major collections by Hacker: Winter Numbers, Squares and Courtyards, Desesperanto, and Names. During this period, Hacker has also published numerous collections of poetry in translation—and she includes some translations of work by Claire Malroux, Marie Étienne, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Emmanuel Moses and others in A Stranger’s Mirror.

Hacker’s commitment to translating poetry seems to me to emanate from a commitment to being a global citizen. She insists that readers follow her outside the borders of the United States. The inclusion of translations in A Stranger’s Mirror invites further exploration of these French voices and Hacker’s translations. The selected poems also demonstrate foundational ideas and spaces to Hacker’s work. “Elegy for a Friend” begins “When life was strong and when we’d walk / as if in a dream,” then continues,

_______when love

carried us like a torch from strands
to waves of hair, crackling flames of promises
cindered swiftly by the wind;

This translation echoes Hacker’s own poem “Going Back to the River”—or her poem echoes this poem by Guy Goffette. The question of influence, knotty, complex. Emmanuel Moses’s “Fugue 1” evokes the trees:

_______we are the tree of the world
the living and the dead touch in us
_______the dead rise toward the living
_______the living descend toward the dead
we are the middle

Later in the poem Hacker translates Moses, “we will or will not watch raindrops on the windowpane / blue the view it offers of the sky” and, oddly, it is like being back in the room of “A Stranger’s Mirror” with the bookshelf, the winter coat.

Wherever you gather, by the windowpane or in front of a mirror, Marilyn Hacker is a poet imagining a rich interior and a vibrant exterior. A Stranger’s Mirror gathers Hacker’s new and selected poems from the past twenty years. For Hacker devotees like me, it is an essential book; for people just discovering her work it is a beginning. Reading the entire Hacker oeuvre is a testament to what one person can accomplish through a life of devotion to poetry. May she happen to you as she happened to me, deep down, like a pulse.



Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014
By Marilyn Hacker
W.W Norton
Hardcover, 9780393244649, 320 pp.
January 2014

Julie R. Enszer photo

About: Julie R. Enszer

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ, and Frontiers. She is the author of two poetry collections, Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). She is editor of Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011). Milk & Honey was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. She is the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. You can read more of her work at

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