"You are student and a citizen/ of whatever state is transient -- Which language, after all, is yours?" writes Marilyn Hacker in the title poem in her latest collection, "Desesperanto: Poems 1999-2002."
If it is possible for a contemporary poet to capture the dissonant spirit of an age as W.B. Yeats did in "Easter 1916" or W.H. Auden did in his often quoted "September 1, 1939," then Hacker's collection may someday be viewed as an essential document of our unexpectedly anxious age.
Hacker, who will give this year's annual Silverman poetry reading Friday at 8 p.m. in 250 Baird Hall on the University at Buffalo's North Campus, has been an important voice in American poetry and letters since her 1974 debut collection, "Presentation Piece," received both the Lamont Poetry Prize from American Academy of Poets and the National Book Award.
With this, her tenth collection in a storied career that has already brought almost every honor a living poet can receive, she leads us as readers into the harsh terrain of grief, mourning and loss with only the autumnal wisdom of memory and the elegiac humanity of her own voice to guide us.
The book's title, "Desesperanto," is a neologism, combining elements of the French desespoir, meaning "to lose heart" with the Spanish esperanto signifying hope, and more particularly the proposed pan-European "universal language" of a generation ago.
"Desesperanto" is for Hacker "the universal language of despair" that contains within itself the seeds of hope, the grammar of possibility. "Grief's radical subtraction/enacted, may there be/ some countersurge, reaction/ of self-sufficient joy/ at a rainy intersection," she writes in "Road Work."
Written largely from the perspective of a native New Yorker living in Paris at the time immediately preceding and following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only a few of these poems refer specifically to the attacks or the "engines of war (that) move inexorably" in their aftermath, but Hacker captures the emotional fragility of those months with almost perfect pitch in her descriptions of Paris street scenes, her dedications to friends and fellow poets and her constant admonition to "Stay in the present tense."
Given the emotional depth and political awareness of her work, no one would describe Hacker as a "formalist," but her effortless and unobtrusive command of verse forms is almost without parallel among contemporary poets.
"Desesperanto" is comprised primarily of sonnets. Its title poem is an intricate "crown of sonnets" featuring interlocking first and last lines.
Elsewhere in the volume she revives such classical forms as the (Italian) canzone and (Persian) ghazal with such vernacular grace that many contemporary readers will doubtless acquire a new appreciation for these forms.