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Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker (Arbor House: $14.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback; 206 pp.)

October 19, 1986|James Bartruff | Bartruff is a Los Angeles poet and film writer. and

Marilyn Hacker came on the national poetry scene in 1975 with her first collection, "Presentation Piece," which was the Lamont Poetry Selection and the National Book award winner for that year. In the decade since, she has ridden the great swell to the edges of the feminist literary and social movement. "Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons" details this life in a book-length series of sonnets. The poems form a diary of sorts, the diary of a yearlong love affair with a younger woman, and, perhaps more interestingly, of a love affair with friends, Manhattan, France.

What an inviting life! One often finds in radical feminist literature the metallic aftertaste of the polemic; not here. In the endless phone calls and letters and drinks and midnight walks and wild clothes of Hacker's universe, there is a commitment to other human beings heartwarmingly sincere and gratifying. We are invited into this commitment; we are not told to admire it. This is art of a difficult order.

The love affair follows a classic pattern: first, infatuation and the dream of sex, followed by uncertainty, betrayal, longing and the occasional satisfaction, and, finally, the breakup and denouement as the protagonists return to their previous lives. Hacker is admirable in her self-revelation: She is never afraid to show us the embarrassing emotion, the dirty little thought she is not "supposed" to have. That she survives her passion, and, in fact, rather thrives under it (she writes a great many poems while suffering), lets us feel for an imperfect woman under pressure.

Hacker has a novelist's eye for setting and character. She gives the uninitiated a grand tour behind the self-imposed purdah of the urban lesbian world, and, if one can extrapolate that far, its thinking. Her poetry is helpfully formal. Her sonnets, sestinas and villanelles curb a tendency to slangy prosiness. Her slippery rhyming helps drive the all-important narrative at good speed. One wishes for more than a handful of highly finished pieces, but it certainly wasn't Hacker's intent to create another "Sonnets From the Portuguese." These are the works of a woman who is very much of the flesh (graphically so), and very much harried to keep up with love, writing and the insistence of motherhood.

The verse novel is in vogue these days. The great American one has yet to be written--this isn't it. But the extended form plays up Hacker's narrative strengths, while downplaying her lyrical weaknesses; her previous collections haven't done this successfully. As a portrait of a milieu, a satisfying effort. As poetry, less so.

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