The literary world tends to elevate male novelists to the status of “important artists” more than it does female novelists. Not so in poetry. Many of the most highly regarded and influential figures in contemporary poetry are women, and they are changing the laws governing the appraisal of “important work” that have long favored work by and about men.
Lucie Brock-Broido, director of the poetry program at Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts, is one of those increasingly prominent female poets. In her third book. Trouble in Mind (Knopf, $23), she declares, “I am tired/ Of women who are sad. I am tired/ Of men who are tired.” With each poem in this considerable collection, Brock-Broido uses her lyrical ability to address emotional truths with a ferocity and musicality unlike that of any other poet writing today. As in her earlier books, it is impossible to anticipate where the poems are headed. “A Truce to Tragedy” begins with the wind, “tobacco-colored in its field of mere/And war,” and leaps to a closing rumination “on what might not have been/ And long, but tenderly.”
A handful of poems touch on Jewish subjects. In “Still Life with Aspirin,” the West Bank is “an eternal circle of chalk and bruise and war,” Jerusalem: “somewhere/ Between fancy & imagination,” and herself “the gallowglass guarding the history and turf of everything/Intimate.” In the memorable poem “Soul Keeping Company,” Brock-Broido reflects on the Jewish mourning ritual of staying with the deceased until burial; she remains with her mother’s body “through the affliction of the night, keeping/ Soul constant, a second self.” Her only wish, she states in the poem, is to be magical—an impossibility when it comes to saving a relative, but she does come awfully close in the lyric wizardry of this masterful collection.
A radically different but equally accomplished poet, Marilyn Hacker, also writes of mourning in her tenth collection, Desesperanto (Norton, $23.95). The winner of a National Book Award and other honors. Hacker divides her time between New York City and Paris, both of which find their way into her poetry. Hacker listens to the life of the cities she inhabits, the old men “arguing/ on benches, in French, in Mandarin,/ in Arabic, Yiddish and Portuguese.” Sitting in a French cafe, she overhears: “Five old men/ dissect last week’s election.” Later in the conversation: “Victor, will/ at last bring up Israel/—sixtyish son asking his/ elders what ought to be done.” Hacker generally maintains distance from the characters she observes, reporting more than assessing them: who speaks first, who interrupts, who finally changes the subject.
In a few poems, however, she diminishes that distance, as in her eulogy for Karig Sara, a Finnish woman who worked with the Red Cross to save orphans and children of deported Jewish parents in World War II. Hacker tells of one girl who later searched out Sara to tell of her success as a writer: “Partisan, scribe and second mother: motherless, childless,” Hacker says to Sara, “you made each other/ possible. Without you, less is possible.”
Hacker searches for those heroes, like Sara, who: “invent themselves from daily/ womanhood.” The poems in this collection honor such women: Muriel Rukeyser, and June Jordan, who Hacker calls “a Cassandra/ Lilith in the wilderness of her lyric.” What else can you do, she asks, “but tell someone the story?”
Idra Novey is a poet and translator, an editor for the poetry journal Ratta-pallax, and a teacher in Columbia’s Undergraduate Writing Program.