As poet, witness, prankster, storyteller, friend, lover, mother, heir to literary tradition, balladeer, lesbian, and fellow traveler, Marilyn Hacker has emerged as one of a handful of essential poets of the second half of the twentieth century. From its earliest appearance on the poetry scene, her poetry has made readers stand up and "take notice." Hacker's distinctive urban voice and formidable sense of craft, among other qualities, led to an unusual triumph when her first book, Presentation Piece, earned her two of the most coveted American literary prizes: the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1973 and the National Book Award for 1975. At age 31, however, Hacker was no mere enfant terrible of the literary world. Her flame continued to burn in the series of books that rapidly followed. Even those who might have been uncomfortable with her feminist politics or her explicit sexual content could not help but be impressed with the dazzle of her formal dexterity in the production of villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, and sonnet sequences, among other favored forms.
Hacker's life has so clearly been her art that her readers have had the privilege of observing her autobiography in process, book by book. We have been introduced to her important friends and lovers and watched her daughter, Iva Alyxander, move from babyhood to adolescence and beyond. This does not mean, however, that Hacker can be neatly filed away as a "confessional" poet, for the stories she tells through her poems are also the stories of a generation (post-World War II) and a culture, or more accurately, a meshing of cultures (lesbian—in the later books—, Jewish, American, New York, expatriate, intellectual/literary). They exist within a specific political moment and are informed by the collective history shared by poet and reader alike. Thus, in "Graffiti from the Gare-Saint Manqué," from Assumptions, Hacker places herself on a historical continuum as "another Jewish lesbian in France," which is the repeating line in each stanza. Similarly, in "Ballad of Ladies Lost and Found," from the same book, she follows in the footsteps of those "women who, entre deux guerres ... came out on college-graduation trips."
Hacker was born in the Bronx, the daughter of an industrial chemist and an elementary school teacher. She grew up in a three-room apartment filled with books and attended the famous Bronx High School for Science, where she met her future husband, science fiction writer Samuel (Chip) Delany. She started college at the age of 15 as a student at the Washington Square College of New York University and married Delany three years later. Theirs was by no means a conventional marriage, as Delany documented in his own memoir, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965. Delany was himself openly gay, and Hacker pursued other relationships as well.
Prominent among poems that establish the milieu of their life together in New York are "Nights of 1962: The River Merchant's Wife" and "Nights of 1964-1966: The Old Reliable." Hacker opens...