Marilyn Hacker

            for Marie Ponsot


To bring you back, Marie, at least to me,

as we were, brilliantly not old or young,

above the ravine, on a Manhattan street, among

friends, among strangers, in dialogue, blessed were we

among women, prayer you hid for all to see

as title of what might read as a song

chafing at limits, but that would be wrong,

though there’s no reading that was wrong entirely

to you, who’d give what anyone might find

your full attention, if it had been paid.

What attentive elements remained

in the half-locked box of an aphasic mind—

green words burgeoning in a green glade,

monastic multiparous solitude?


Multipara, monastic solitude

seemed sometimes like the object of desire,

or was. Teresa, mind inconveniently on fire,

on muleback, between convents, understood.

A convent once, a cabin near a wood

years later… thesaurus, notebook, the entire

sky and its swooping denizens. You require

just enough water.  You forget about food…

Back in the world of marriage and divorce,

you observed, listened, wouldn’t supervise

composed and decomposing families.

Once, with spiral notebooks on our knees,

Petrarchan sunlight getting in our eyes,

we sat for hours near the unsounded source.


For hours they’d sit near the unsounded source,

knowing despite crossed wires, it all was there—

determination, something like faith, despair

refused like blasphemy. You couldn’t force

language, why would you, when it might traverse

your mind unasked. You’d lost the words to the Lord’s Prayer

in English after the first stroke. It appeared

in Latin, on mental parchment—which, of course,

you back-translated, for quotidian use

in mind, at midnight, in a hospital.

A nicotine patch brought back Pascal

as gallstones brought you closer to Montaigne,

body’s and mind’s uncompromising truce,

that long-ago July in Avignon.


Beijing, London, Houston, Avignon,

post-war Paris; change, better or worse.

Queens childhood, many childbirths, a long divorce,

a long apprenticeship on each horizon .

There was always something to improvise on—

new alphabet, Tang statuette, red horse

on a cave wall, collaborative verse

while wine poured alongside the running dragon.

I stop the way you stopped when you composed

those tanka, riffed on your own words, weeks apart,

a bluejay, a blue ashtray, and you’d start

writing, crossing out, writing, ten minutes or

five hours on a couplet or a metaphor,

then you coughed, looked around you, notebook closed.


One day you closed the notebook, left it closed.

Was all the “after” after that an afterthought,

after what you learned, after what you taught,

the languages and strategies you used

to stay abreast, erect, alive? You posed

“with a rosetree up your spine” once, caught

in someone else’s image. But you sought

and found your own. You still sat straight. You dozed

between visitors, between internecine

battles. You hated war. You’d loved. They’d died.

After your youth of Latin verbs and wine,

you classed detritus from a battlefield.

The junk of war, the junk of love, revealed,

turning the coin, your face on either side.


I turn the coin, your face on either side:

absolute loss, absolute composure –

and wonder what we knew about each other,

if I misunderstood choices you made.

We were complicit, decade after decade,

wordsmith, itinerant, polyglot, mother.

There was no rupture,  there was no closure

but absence, incomprehensible, denied.

I was across the always-defining ocean

that changed your life, that keeps rewriting mine.

Monique made what’s unbearable routine,

and gentled it, so that you could remain

your self-contained, observant self, pristine

in dialogue with all and anyone.


Your dialogue might be with anyone,

the uncertain young, infants, the wild old

-- or so you hoped they’d be, taught and enthralled

by grandmothers, nuns, grocers.  Free electron

at a kitchen table, on a night train,

stalled on your terrace in the March chill, shawled

and silent in a wheelchair, as you recalled

to view illuminations in your brain

that you might not enunciate again.

Misfired synapses were tragedy,

whose syntax once cohered in poetry,

whose unsaid subtexts no one will explain.

No cognate phrase parsed in this foreign rain

will bring you back, at least to me, Marie.



Found In Volume 50, No. 01
Read Issue
  • marilyn hacker
Marilyn Hacker
About the Author
Marilyn Hacker's many books include A Stranger's Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2013 (W.W. Norton, 2015) and Names (W.W. Norton, 2010). She has been a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets since 2008, and she lives in Paris.