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Cartographies of the Posthuman Feminist Body in Winter Numbers

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Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Cartographies of the Posthuman Feminist Body in Winter Numbers

. . . They wore the blunt tattoo,

a scar, if they survived, oceans away.

Should I tattoo my scar? What would it say?

 Marilyn Hacker, “Cancer Winter”, 1994

Upon my body is superimposed

the map of a Europe I never knew:

my olive skin, my eyes, my hips, my nose

all mark me as an Ashkenazi Jew

if anyone were looking for a mark

to indicate the designated prey.

 Marilyn Hacker, “August Journal”, 1994



This chapter examines Marilyn Hacker’s breast cancer poetry in her seventh collection, Winter Numbers (1994). In ‘’Against Elegies’’, Hacker interrogates the inappropriateness of traditional elegiac tropes and metaphors of illness to write a new narrative of disease and recovery. A second shift in Hacker’s oeuvre appears when she imagines her “body” as a “map of Europe” that ‘’superimpose[s]’’ upon her the history of her “Ashkenazi Jew[ish]” heritage in ‘’August Journal’’.  The image of the map arises out of the postmastectomy “scar” that she uses as a historical mark (“tattoo”) of personal and collective suffering. The scarred body is a “revised manuscript/radically rewritten” by the history of Holocaust victims and survivors in ‘’Cancer Winter’’. Examining Hacker’s metaphorical treatment, I read the body through Braidotti’s conceptualization of ‘cartography’ as a mapping of cultural and historical identity onto the female body. This collection marks Hacker’s first use of the metaphor of the ‘braid’ in ‘’Year’s End’’ as a metaphor of female intimacy and interconnectivity, showing Hacker to develop and articulate a model of critical and feminist subjectivity in nomadic mode. Braidotti’s feminist version of the posthuman is useful to understand how Hacker rethinks the body’s ontological status to provide relational foundations beyond the limits and boundaries of the body.

The political and historical image of the body as map reveals a departure from Hacker’s mapping of desire onto the body, which she illustrates in her earlier poems, namely “Taking Notice”, “Canzone” and the lesbian love sonnet Love, Death, and the Changing of Seasons (1986). I read the map as a two-tiered and self-conscious metaphor that on one level links the illnesses and political disasters of her generation to her personal fight with breast cancer, and on another level maps the history of Holocaust victims and survivors onto the scarred body, all the while interrogating whether one person’s experience of suffering can represent that of a group. The map metaphor reifies the connection between an embedded historical position of her Jewish roots and an embodied posthuman condition as a result of her mastectomy and the resulting scar. Hacker takes up questions of bodily performance and image to highlight the different ways embodiment is experienced that can be understood and examined in light of the posthuman feminist view of the body. She also questions how she, as a cancer patient, can reposition herself in relation to the altered landscape of her body, and to the altered landscape of her identity.

The sense of emotional and physical alienation and isolation in her pre-1980s writings of exile, which she overcame with the support of a women’s community, returns in a darker and more sombre tone as the scarred body evokes a partial and incomplete view of the self. Moreover, the speaking subject’s view of her body expands from a complex structure of individual desire in her post-1980 lesbian poetry to a nonunitary, multi-layered, posthuman vision of the self that connects the postcancerous body to other bodies in crisis. As such, earlier expressions of female interconnectedness that were articulated in Taking Notice return in Winter Numbers to reflect on the braiding of women’s life and death experiences. The search for new metaphors of poetic and political connection marks the growth of feminist nomadic thought as Hacker moves toward a transcultural feminist poetics in her later poetry.

“Against Elegies”: AIDS and Cancer Poems

In 1993, Hacker was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy of her right breast; Winter Numbers is the book that came out of that experience, responding to her own breast cancer and others’. Death and illness permeate the entire collection as the titles of all three sections resonate with the reality of mortality: “Against Elegies”, “Elysian Fields”, and “Cancer Winter”. The first and second sections discuss the losses of her generation from cancer, AIDS, and suicide; in addition to these themes, however, the third section examines them from the lens of the personal experience of cancer. In addition to this collection, Hacker has also published “Journal Entries” (1999), which includes excerpts from the notebooks she kept when discovering the breast lump and undergoing treatment that covered a three-year period from November 1992 to July 1995. These journals also document the personal and social events surrounding that period that can be read against and with the poems.

Winner of the 1994 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the 1994 Lambda Literary Award, Winter Number’s importance originates from the way it gives voice to the silence and reticence of breast cancer poems published before it. The collection also joins the voices of other women who have experienced and written about this topic; among those women is Audre Lorde, to whom Hacker dedicated “Year’s End” from the same collection. Most notably, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals (1980) was very influential in increasing the visibility of breast cancer narratives as well as in creating the ethical exigency that writing about breast cancer is an act of politics. Lorde’s Journals made a significant ‘’difference not only in the visibility of breast cancer and in the possibilities for writing about it but also in creating an imperative: not only should one write about one’s experience of cancer, but by doing so is a political act and doing so correctly is an ethical act” (Herndl, “Our Breasts” 221). At the start of her autobiography, Lorde asserts,

I am a post-mastectomy woman who believes our feelings need voice in order to be recognized, respected, and of use. . . May these words serve as encouragement for other women to speak and to act out of our experiences with cancer and with other threats of death, for silence has never brought us anything of worth. (8-9)

Alicia Ostriker’s sequence “The Mastectomy Poems” from The Crack in Everything (1996) is also an account of a woman’s breast cancer experience. Hacker notes that she was responsible for the publication of these poems in the Kenyon Review in 1994 (“Journal Entries” 218). Hacker refers to the poems as she looks for narrative models of breast cancer. She notes that these poems are “vividly about a woman living through and after breast cancer, and embodies her refusal to be diminished to the ‘victim’ role, while chronicling her fear and loss” (218). Hacker reflects on Ostriker’s work in 1995, after her own breast cancer experience, when asking fundamental questions about what it means to ‘’survive’’ after traumatic experiences.

The publication date of Hacker’s collection preceding Ostriker’s confirms Melissa Zeiger’s observation that “[u]ntil November 1994, when Marilyn Hacker published her Winter Numbers, no single author’s volume of poetry, as far as I’m aware, has been mostly devoted to poems about breast cancer” (139). In fact, cancer became a central topic in Hacker’s later poetry not only because of her personal experience, but also because her father suffered from pancreatic cancer and died at age forty-seven as she writes in “Letter to Julie in a New Decade” from the same collection, “My father was forty-six years old / before he ‘settled down’ in a career. / Cancer settled in him. They never told / us what it was. It killed him in a year” (48). This unnerving attention to the psychic and social threats of the illness shows a darker turn in Hacker’s work that stems from a larger meditation on loss, age, pain, and death. As the body is home to all these ills, it is the embodiment of suffering, as opposed to desire, that marks this deeper exploration. The body also becomes the site of political tragedies, as ethnic history is evoked to connect to the suffering of Holocaust victims.

The title of the collection evokes this sombre tone in its double play on “Winter” and “Numbers”. The reference to “winter” provides the bleak setting for death, old age, pain, loneliness, and endings as it was the season of Hacker’s mastectomy. “Numbers” refers to a person’s age as well as the “other numbers”: stage of cancer, cancer cell counts, and the numbers of those survived and dead. The prosody connects “Numbers” to the poetic metre, in that the collection is largely in dialogue with formal patterns. For example, “Cancer Numbers” has what Hacker calls a “disjunctive and dialogic” (Ellis et al.) relation with the iambic pentameter of the traditional sonnet. When in the last sonnet of the series she writes, “Friends, you died young. These numbers do not sing / your requiems, your elegies, our war” (90), the “numbers” reflect both the body count and the limits of the metrical feet to “sing” narrative meditations of “elegies”. Moreover, the oxymoronic juxtaposition of “winter” with “numbers” shows Hacker evoking seasonal cyclical time against numerical linear time to resist the linear and coherent model of illness that dictates either the cure or death of the patient. Using “winter”, Hacker is pointing to another understanding of trauma and illness that includes emotional hardship and the threat of remission, which her rhetorical question “I woke up, still alive. Does that mean ‘cured’?” evokes (90).

This rhetorical question runs through her post-1994 work where death remains an open question, as she writes in a later poem, “Scars on Paper”, from Squares and Courtyards:

The pain and fear some courage extinguished

at disaster’s denouement come back

daily, banal: is that brownish-black

mole the next chapter? Was the ache enmeshed

between my chest and armpit when I washed

rogue cells’ new claw, or just a muscle ache? (16)

Having suffered breast cancer, the speaker’s resoluteness is “extinguished” when she finds the slightest “brownish-black / mole” on her body. Living in constant “pain and fear”, she is obsessed with whether this mark represents “rogue cells’ new claw” and the “next chapter” of her illness, or “just a muscle ache”. The oxymoronic pairing of the speaker’s feelings reveals the in-between state that cancer patients experience: “fear” and “courage”, “extinguished” and “disaster”, and “denouement” and “come back”. Caught between the shifting boundaries of health and sickness, the speaker is constantly negotiating impulses to notice and examine, or to move on and overlook.

Throughout the course of Winter Numbers, the speaker exists in neither position, in an-in-between phase of the narrative moment, or what she calls “the expanding moment, / present, infinitesimal, infinite” (95). At the end of the sonnet sequence she observes, “The late sunlight, the morning rain, will bring / me back to where I started, whole, alone” (90), thus completing the cycle by returning to the first sonnet and indicating the passage of time in the “darkening day’s / contours” (77). The incoherence that is presented through Hacker’s model takes her back and forth between present and past, like the cycle of the seasons, to reflect on her experience of breast cancer and the traumas of others from the past and present.

Bringing these two dark denotations together – “winter” and “numbers” – the poet evokes the trope of mortality to raise awareness of this deadly threat to women, especially lesbians. Addressing conventional beliefs about the risk factors in the lesbian lifestyle, Hacker says, “there has to be some debunking of the idea that lesbians get breast cancer because we’re overweight and alcoholic . . . I know an awful lot of skinny, health food-eating lesbian jocks with breast cancer” (Dresser 51). In a feminist narrative of the politics and poetics of breast cancer, Hacker widens Lorde’s treatment of identity, silence, and the body to give voice to both corporeal as well as historical tragedies, which will be discussed later in the chapter.

Winter Numbers is constantly engaged in its elegiac process, addressing themes of loss and mourning while trying constantly to find “another metaphor” or a new model to express these novel embodied experiences. It attempts to gradually accept the grief of the death of friends from cancer and AIDS as well as her own experience with breast cancer. By evoking the named and unnamed victims, Hacker as a woman poet reworks the masculinist elegiac model of rendering up the dead into a personal mourning that keeps an affectionate connection with the deceased. However, women poets have not been central figures in the tradition of the elegy because, as Celeste Schenck suggests, “the genre itself excludes the feminine from its perimeter except as muse principle or attendant nymp” (13). Schenck notes the difference between the male and female elegists:

[b]uilt upon a different set of internalized relations with predecessors, the female elegy is a poem of connectedness; women inheritors seem to achieve poetic identity in relation to ancestresses, in connection to the dead, whereas male initiates need to eliminate the competition to come into their own. (15)

This is because connection, rather than the separation of death, helps evoke a better understanding of oneself and life. Women poets have revised and challenged the male elegiac tradition by “reject[ing] the oppressive or sacrificial structures of the traditional elegy” and by being “importantly pioneering for other elegiac genres, notably AIDS and breast cancer elegies” (Zeiger 63).

An early example of a breast-cancer elegy is Adrienne Rich’s “A Woman Dead in her Forties” from A Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, which describes a woman who dies from breast cancer. Hacker refers to this poem in her journal entry dated 14 January 1993, immediately following her operation and while undergoing chemotherapy. She describes it as a “bleak elegy”, suggesting her distress because of its depressing and gruesome details. In the first lines, the poem confronts the truth of this illness with a shocking image:

Your breasts/    sliced-off     The scars

dimmed     as they would have to be

years later (53)

The graphic “/” imitates a surgical cut, but it also suggests the separation and disembodiment of this part of the body that is replaced by the “scars” that will be “dimmed” and less distinct than before. The gaps within the lines allude to the silences and reticence that surrounds these breast-cancer narratives, a “mute loyalty” as she calls it, and addresses it when she says:

I want to touch my fingers

to where your breasts had been

but we never did such things (53)

Reflecting how they “never spoke at [her] deathbed of [her] death”, the speaker demands an end to the silence that kept the friends apart in life “but from here on / I want more crazy mourning, more howl, more keening” (53). This call comes as the speaker views the friend’s regression from the religiously cultured “neo-protestant tribe” to the pagan superstitions of her “amber beads / strung with turquoise from an Egyptian grave”. As David Kennedy notes, this reverse movement suggests “a journey back to the culturally unmediated roots of mourning. Women wailing are more effective than modern women’s culturally learned and sanctioned ‘mute loyalty”’ (75).

In “Against Elegies”, Hacker both challenges and complicates the elegy’s power of storytelling to fix sorrow: she depicts the vagueness of illness and trauma and the indefinite number of lives they claim. She confronts and examines her own cancer and mortality through the suffering of others as she pays tribute to friends and acquaintances dead and dying from diseases like breast cancer, lung cancer, and AIDS, as well as from suicide:

James has cancer. Catherine has cancer.

Melvin has AIDS.

Whom will I call, and get no answer?

My old friends, my new friends who are old,

or older, sixty, seventy, take pills

with meals or after dinner. Arthritis

scourges them. (11)

In an attempt to resist death by wryly entitling her poem “Against Elegies”, Hacker finds herself mourning a small group of friends as a declaration against succumbing to despair and hopelessness by memorialising their names (“James”, “Catherine”, and “Melvin”) in poems. Echoing Hacker’s practice of managing feeling through form, Octavio Paz stresses the significance of form as the “memory of mankind”:

Poetic forms are essential in poetry, because they are our recourse against death and the attrition of the years. Form is made to last. At times it is a challenge, at times a fortress or a monument, but it always represents the will to endure. Time concentrated and transmuted. It sets in opposition to real time not fixed structure but living architecture . . . Art is a will to form because it is a will to endure.

(“Who Reads Poetry?” 605-6)

Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats (1992) offers a reference point for a poetics that counters the erasure of loss with the endurance of poetic form. Like Hacker, Gunn uses formalism to examine the loss of friends to AIDS, particularly how gay men suffering from this disease have fought it. In the title poem of the collection, “The Man with Night Sweats”, the speaker experiences his body’s vulnerability: “I cannot but be sorry / The given shield was cracked, / My mind reduced to hurry, / My flesh reduced and wrecked” (57). Both “mind” and “flesh” are “reduced” after all that he was resilient towards has “cracked” the “body [he] could trust”. There is a structure of reversal in which the body that was once a “shield”, sturdy and “robust”, is now defenceless; the pain that once would have come from the outside, and was easily deflected, now arises from within. The final image of the speaker “hugging my body to me” demonstrates that formalism can be a resistant strategy, a brace against transience.

Through her antielegiac stance, Hacker is ‘’deconstructing’’, as Schenck explains, “the genre’s valorization of separation by means of apotheosis” through “refusing resolution and the absolute rupture that is death” (18). As Zeiger argues, Hacker’s poems refuse “a self-elegizing impulse and a premature leave-taking” (165). At the same time, the elegiac speaker is aware of the existential scandal of death and laments the probable loss of these loved ones. For example, in “Scars on Paper”, words hold the power to resurrect the dead: “On paper, someone flowers / and flares alive. I knew her. But she’s dead”; they also have the ability to take away lives: “Words take the absent friend away again” (15). When the speaker in ‘’Against Elegies’’ asks “Whom will I call?” instead of the more personal “who will I call?”, she is indicating that she is inquiring about someone new for her to offer emotional support, searching for a community to mourn together after her friends have left. The rhetorical question is a call for an answer to this predicament.

Although the elegy resists order and a coherent movement, it paradoxically attempts one nonetheless. The clear rhyme of “cancer” and “answer” shows Hacker trying to make sense of cancer’s amorphousness by creating order and placing it in poetic form. Iain Twiddy, commenting on Hacker’s elegiac process, explains that “It is not just the large number of deaths that places elegy under the strain of generating an ‘answer’, but also what has caused the deaths” (93). However, the suppressed end-rhymes and irregular line lengths in the rest of the stanza create a strain that cannot contain this linear narrative of disease and grief. The prosody of the poem invites us to make connections with Rich’s view that, for Hacker to achieve female expression, the poems must be more irregular so as to suggest illogical connections. Indeed, Hacker, in sensing something new about her own writing, sent “Against Elegies” to Rich for her opinion. Rich, impressed with the long poem, wrote to Hacker of her favourable impression:

It feels like you’re breaking into something new: a rawness, an uneasiness, that has often been held at arm’s length by the sheer virtuosity and elegance of your style. It feels to me as if it’s on the way somewhere, not there yet. I found myself, nonetheless, responding to it as if I were a Chinese immigrant on Angel Island, reading a poem by an earlier occupant of the same cell, inscribed on the wall, telling of the same loss, fear, sense of betrayal, I was feeling.[1]

The jaggedness of the poem reveals that Hacker began to work her feelings into creative subversions of poetic form and strong expression. The irregularity reveals Hacker undoing the model of the conventional elegy from mourning an older generation dying of old age to “the young-middle-aged / whom something, or another something, kills / before the chapter’s finished, the play staged” (11). This unconventional elegy pattern acts to disrupt the closure that comes with dying from old age. This grim self-consciousness of the fate of her particular generation is grasped when Hacker learns of her own breast cancer as she asserts in “August Journal”: “It is exceptional to die in bed / at ninety-eight” (91). Likewise, when Hacker shows poet Marie Ponsot the manuscript of “Against Elegies”, Ponsot thinks “of her five or six Queens College colleagues, closer to [Hacker’s] age than hers, who had been killed by cancer,” noting “that the prevalence of cancer in [Hacker’s] generation – not to mention the scourge of AIDS – was unprecedented” (“Journal Entries” 223). This is the second way, according to Schenck, that female elegists subvert the masculine elegy, through ‘’reconstructing’’ the genre by “imagining new or alternative elegiac scenarios that arise from a distinctly feminine psycho-sexual experience” (18). This deviation of elegiac linearity from the old to the young reverts to a desire for coherence and linearity:

Morose, unanswerable, the list

of thirty- and forty-year-old suicides

(friends’ lovers, friends’ daughters) insists

in its lengthening: something’s wrong.

The sixty-five-year-olds are splendid, vying

with each other in work hours and wit.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But their children are dying. (11)

The gratitude for the health and longevity of an older generation is played out against the devastation by suicide of the “thirty- and forty-year-old[’s]”. Hacker’s confusion (“something’s wrong”) alludes to a bigger fear she had of getting breast cancer because many of the women around her, especially feminist writers from her generation, had either died from the disease, like Lorde and Sonny Wainwright, or had lived through the experience and survived, like Alicia Ostriker. With that threat surrounding her, Hacker was constantly, “feeling [her] own breasts in tentative and terrified self-examination” (“Journal Entries” 206). Hacker’s self-examinations reflected “recent attempts to reposition the female cancer patient as actively engaged in fighting against her breast cancer” (Bahar 1028) as promoted by feminism and women’s breast cancer autobiographies.

Although the bodily and mental realities of cancer and AIDS have been received and expressed differently by the sciences and arts, Hacker brings them together as there are certain similarities between the politics of AIDS and breast cancer. According to Zeiger,

the analogies between the discourses of AIDS and breast cancer are importantboth are increasingly powerful, effective, and politically sophisticated sources of activism, and both are the necessary response by groups who consider their lives particularly vulnerable to public indifference or hostility. (138)

Differentiating between them, however, Zeiger notes that AIDS elegies “import a communal politics and an overriding sense of shared catastrophe into the sphere of poetic production”, while breast cancer elegies “negotiate between individual poetic achievement and the interests of womenor women with breast canceras a class” (20-12). Although the primary focus of Winter Numbers is on cancer, Hacker nevertheless acknowledges the difficulty of aging. Hacker was fifty-two when this collection was published and her realisation of the limitations and indignity of age are all too vivid in the “pills” that her “sixty” and “seventy” year-old-friends take for “arthritis”. Moving from an individual elegy of friends to a closer examination of the effects of cancer, Hacker details her view of her friend’s experience:

Catherine is back in radiotherapy.

Her schoolboy haircut, prematurely gray,

now frames a face aging with other numbers:

“stage two,” “stage three” mean more than “fifty-one”

and mean, precisely nothing, which is why

she stares at nothing: lawn chair, stone,

bird, leaf; brusquely turns off the news. (12)

Hacker’s elegy for her friend continues her exploration of gender through the female elegy that addresses issues of female bodily experience. Identifying her friend’s name and the embodiment of the hair and face is central to the presence and voice of female elegists. As the body takes on a new centrality in Hacker’s works, she attempts to destabilise the conventions of traditional elegy through the gendered representations of the body’s diverse and shifting physical experiences. When she returns to treatment, Catherine’s age and gender, which are considered intrinsic to a woman’s identity and body-image, are changed. Commenting on her friend’s “schoolboy haircut”, Hacker observes the impact of chemotherapy in creating an androgynous appearance, which she will later explore through the physical and psychological impacts of mastectomy on her own body image. Highlighting the physical changes formed by medical interventions, Hacker sees her friend differently, with the “prematurely gray” hair and “face aging” with numbers other than age revealing that being a middle-aged woman is something that does not last through treatment.

There is a play on the word “numbers” to suggest both the stages of cancer and cell count. Hacker uses the word “mean” as a pun for what these numbers represent as well as for the mathematical average of survival rates among women. She then deconstructs the relevance of these numbers, which in the bigger picture of age and illness “mean, precisely nothing”. This inner void turns outward as Catherine “stares” absentmindedly at objects lacking life and soul, just like her. As her despair over her own illness overwhelms her, she cannot handle more unhappiness about others and “brusquely turns off the news”. In Hacker’s examination of the connection between gender and illness, she gruesomely contrasts the physical and social circumstances of women’s sickness to men:

Pregnant women with AIDS, schoolgirls, crack whores,

die faster than men do, in more pain,

are more likely than men to die alone. (12)

Hacker is saying that not only are women disadvantaged by illness, but that to be a woman means to be solitary in one’s pain and one’s death. Sadly, this knowledge will be no consolation if or when she becomes ill herself. Moving from the “statistics” of the sick and dead, Hacker enquires about herself, and her lover’s, “statistics” on the day she finds “a mass in her right breast” (“Journal Entries” 206). It is in this poem that she begins to confront the experience of breast cancer with openness and intelligence by writing about it for the first time:

And our statistics, on the day I meet

the lump in my breast, you phone

the doctor to see if your test results came? (12-13)

“The lump” is personified and depicted as an impersonal, separate entity as she “meet[s]” it for the first time, while also suggesting the banality of this encounter in stark contrast to the radical events that would follow. This early alienation from the illness depicts Hacker’s feelings as a foreign body enters her own. “This kind of alienation from the self”, according to Cathy Altmann, “is exactly what occurs when cancer cells, the Other, take the place of normal cells” (16). At this point, the lump is indistinguishable from Hacker as it is still inside of her, but not part of her. Later, however, in “Cancer Winters”, she addresses it as a living, despicable creature and orders it to leave her body: “O blight that ate my breasts like worms in fruit, / be banished by the daily pesticide / that I ingest” (89). It seems that the poem did not originally include the reference to Hacker’s lump, as Rich’s letter to Hacker quotes the draft: “if/when I meet a lump in my breast”.[2] It is plausible that Hacker had not yet published the poem when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and as such she may have revised it. Indeed, the structural composition of the collection shifts the speaker’s position from witness to patient by the end of the book.

In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva describes this revulsion as “the abject”, which refers to the human response (horror, vomit) to an unsettling of meaning brought by the inability to distinguish between the subject and object, self and other. Bodily emissions can generate such a reaction as they “remind us of the difficulty of keeping our body clean, and our vulnerability to defilement and death. When the boundaries of the body are transgressed, there we encounter the abject” (Altman 12). Elizabeth Grosz explains that the “abject is the impossible object, still part of the subject: an object the subject strives to expel but which is ineliminable” (‘’Julia Kristeva’’ 198). “The abject, then”, according to Jackie Stacey, “is both separate from, and yet part of, the subject. It is that which we want to exclude, but which threatens to re-enter. As such, it is a constant reminder of the mutability of our borders and the vulnerability of the subject” (76). Thus, we can extend the implication of Kristeva’s work on the “abject” to understand how cancerous cells invade and transgress the limits of the body, colonising in place of normal, healthy cells. It is this act of settling in place of the self that creates an alienation from it, as Altman explains that “[t]he cancer patient can thus experience an alienation from their own body and a state of abjection unlike those with other illnesses” (16).

Although “Against Elegies” addresses the psychic and physical effects of AIDS and breast cancer, it is suggestive of other maladies in society by making connections to a wider range of political traumas and sufferings of this century:

But this was another century

in which we made death humanly obscene:

Soweto  El Salvador  Kurdistan

Armenia  Shatila  Baghdad  Hanoi

Auchwitz   Each one, unique as our lives are,

taints what’s left with complicity,

makes everyone living a survivor

who will, or won’t bear witness for the dead.

I can only bear witness for my own

dead and dying, whom I’ve often failed:

unanswered letters, unattempted phone

calls, against these fictions. . . (14)

There is a stark realisation of the banality of death in a “century” when genocides have become all too pervasive and more numerous. As Saba Bahar notes,

the litany of place names that memorialize sites of twentieth-century near genocides substitutes for the dead themselves, far too numerous to be named and honoured. The exponential increase in their numbers renders any posthumous recognition impossible. (1040)

There is a grim irony that the efforts of the individual “partisan” are outweighed and overshadowed by the “million gratuitous / Deaths from hunger, all-American / Mass murders, small wars, / The old diseases and the new” (15). As individual action is futile, Hacker seeks connectivity with others who are afflicted by illnesses and raises it to a global level when she forges a connection via narrative between individual experience and history, particularly from her location in France. In particular, the Holocaust runs through the entire volume as an imperative to document and “bear witness” by descendants of Europeans who experienced, suffered, and died in this tragedy. These massacres make “everyone living a survivor” who is “taint[ed]” “with complicity”, and the speaker feels the weight of this responsibility but is incapable and “can only bear witness for [her] own / Dead and dying”. She feels she has “often failed” these victims in real life by “unattempted phone calls” and “unanswered letters”, even though she writes poems about the dead and dying as “fictions” in her work.

In the context of the poem, the “survivor” is a person who has not been immediately affected by deadly diseases and political tragedies. Hacker equates the “survivor” with the “witness”: both are external observers who have not been straightforwardly touched by life-undermining infections or man-made calamities, and feel the ethical duty to respond to and recall disasters. According to Ann Shapiro, the works of Jewish women writers are a braided narrative of many strands, one of which is the “imaginative recreation of history. Especially compelling is the Holocaust, which has become a subject both for those who escaped and for those whose response, though historically based, is necessarily imagined” (2). Shapiro’s use of the braid to describe the diverse yet interconnected experiences of Jewish women writers suggests a heritage that Hacker makes use of in the metaphor of the braid to reconstitute the relationship of identity to Jewish history. Even though time and geography have spared Hacker the atrocities of the event, she makes an ethical commitment to access this heritage by bearing “witness-through-the-imagination”. It is a historical as well as an ethnic inheritance that is part of most Europeans’ consciousness as well as the consciousness of “redispersed Jews seeking roots” (“Street Scenes II” 66). Hacker explains as follows:

I very much value the idea of the poet as witness, of writing as a dialogue with the past, to an audience at least partly composed of ghosts. In France that sense of history is part of everybody’s consciousness . . . It’s reconnecting myself, even though it’s not an individual history. It’s an ethnic history – but there’s also a sense of continuity that for me goes very much along with what writing is about: a dialogue with the past, as well as with the future. When the life you are living seems more connected with what’s happened before, as it often does in France, then in a way that life and that writing seem to be more of a piece. (Gardinier 1)

As such, her identification as a Jewish American living in Paris has created a deep and constant ethnic awareness that provides for her embedded and embodied cartographic reading of her historical situation. Here, Hacker embarks on a new formal dialogue with the past, adding the historical dimension to her earlier attempts at poetic dialogues with traditions and poets. To separate the “witness[es]”, or the survivors, from the dead, Hacker makes cancer synonymous with death, using it as a metaphor for an “unknown but certain doom” (“Journal Entries” 218). Hacker’s treatment of cancer as death originates from a culture that is cancer-phobic, where the common cultural assumption is that cancer is war and to lose it results in death, as in the title of Barron Lerner’s medical and cultural history of breast cancer politics, The Breast Cancer Wars (2001). Hilda Raz explains that writers use poetic metaphor to help humans “understand experiences alien and unfamiliar in our lives” and it can also be used to “simplify complex ideas or express and perpetuate common assumptions” (x).

Until recently, the tendency to equate cancer with death has been part of a cultural history of stigmatising cancer when the disease had an overall poor prognosis. However, almost twenty-three years after Hacker wrote these poems, changes in medical practices have helped to revise this understanding through advances in the management of cancers. The management of cancer includes “prevention, surveillance and early detection, treatment of early and advanced disease, and the issues related to long-term survival after the cure” (Burney and Al-Moundhri 137). Regarding breast cancer, the “growing insistence on preventive measures and early detection routines through breast exams and mammographies” have granted women a more active presence in accounts of the disease (Bahar 1028).

Almost forty years ago in Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argued against metaphorical thinking in medical matters:   

My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped. (3-4)

Sontag’s plea comes as a result of the unhealthy effects that metaphors have on cancer patients. For cancer patients, emotional strength and willpower are metaphorically associated with courage and bravery in military endeavours, like soldiers engaged combat. This metaphor paradoxically makes it difficult for cancer patients to admit to feelings of pain, fear, and anger that are prohibited during war as a sign of weakness; it also makes them responsible for their recovery, as Hacker dreads in “Journal Entries”:

The theory that I can influence the outcome is as terrifying as it is reassuring (a metastasis would be “my” fault) . . . That idea of influence  as in the Simonton booksis also terrifying because I fall so neatly into their category of person-set-up-to-develop-cancer (how I “participated in my illness”) with stress in the last twelve months. (221)

Raz argues against these cultural attitudes towards healing: “[c]onventional wisdom says that suffering ennobles . . . Cancer patients aren’t by definition strong. Nor are we heroes. Cancer patients aren’t responsible for our illness or our recoveries, metastases, remissions, or deaths” (xvii). By designating herself as “survivor”, Hacker is invoking the military analogy that Sontag argues against; however, Hacker positions herself ethically and historically as a Jew who bears witness for her European ancestors as well as others. She proclaims that her life is “taint[ed]” (14) with a larger geographical and historical (“Shatila Baghdad Hanoi Auschwitz”) network of pain of her “own dead and dying”. Her use of “taint[ed]” suggests lineage, influence and undesirable physical change that comes from one life infecting another in a permanent way “that is written in their chromosomes” (14). Before Hacker’s breast cancer experience, as this pre-mastectomy poem shows, she regards her Jewish heritage and the tragedy of her people as a moral responsibility that she must respond to and recall the disasters of. Although Hacker’s female revision of the masculinist elegy seeks to establish connections to “her own dead and dying”, she acknowledges that the narrative of these deaths (“Catherine”, “James”, and “Melvin”) will disappear from the larger narrative of history:

For most of us

no question what our deaths, our lives, mean.

At the end, Catherine will know what she knew,

and James will, and Melvin,

and I, in no one’s stories, as we are. (15)

Like them, Hacker will also be forgotten by metahistory. Concluding with the present tense “are”, Hacker is setting the present narrative moment, or the “expanding moment”, in its collective suffering (“we”) against the historical narratives of “stories” written in other people’s “fictions”. No stories can contain what these people “know what [they] knew” or even better represent “what [their] deaths, [their] lives, mean” (15). The poem’s ending creates an indefinite present moment that rejects the resolution of both traditional elegiac forms and conventional narratives of illness.

Hacker’s poetic discourse with her community of women friends and family, as discussed in the previous chapter, progressed into a wider and deeper search for connectivity across temporal and geographical spaces that her ethnic project of “writing with the past” suggests. Her post-feminist narrative of illness rebuilds a sense of self by building that self into a community that can hold a place for female as well as male victims and survivors. In the act of ‘witnessing’, as Price Herndl notes, “testimony can rebuild a sense of self but also a sense of community” (‘’Our Breasts’’ 228). Later, Hacker’s illness will grant her a more observant vision to incorporate multitudes of sick and dying friends and peers. Finding herself witness within a traumatic moment in history, Hacker composes elegies for an entire generation by evoking them as a memorial wall, as she does with the names of sixteen cancer survivors in “Invocation” from Squares and Courtyards:

This is for Elsa, also known as Liz,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hilda, Patricia, Gaylord, Emilienne,

Tania, Eunice: this is for everyone

who marks the distance on a calendar

from what’s less likely each year to “recur.” (24)

In this ode, the poet reaffirms her existence and the existence of her friends, determinedly, now and later, in that abstract permanence that text gives, as she writes in ‘’Scars on Paper’’: “[p]ersistently, on paper we exist” (15).

“Year’s End”: Braided Lives and Deaths

In the late 1980s, poet and academic Julia Alvarez sent Hacker a postcard in which she expressed the desire for a closer friendship with her and other women as well: “I wish our lives braided with each other’s in a more continuing /close up way”.[3] Years later in “Year’s End”, from the last section of Winter Numbers, the verb “braid”, for the first time in Hacker’s writing, appears as a metaphor of the interconnectivity of women’s experiences and relationships:

Twice in my quickly disappearing forties

someone called while someone I loved and I were

making love to tell me another woman

had died of cancer.

Seven years apart, and two different lovers:

underneath the numbers, how lives are braided,

how those women’s death’s and lives, lived and died, were

interleaved also. (75)

As the lines above reveal, “Year’s End” prefaces “Cancer Winter” – the last section of Winter Numbers – with the central and unifying theme of breast cancer that runs through the entire section. The poem does not mention Hacker’s breast cancer, as this poem was composed before her diagnosis, but by positioning it at the start of the cancer narrative it becomes a portent of Hacker’s cancer. The two women mentioned in the poem are the same two women the poem is dedicated to: Audre Lorde and Sonny Wainwright, both of whom died of breast cancer and knew Hacker very well.[4] The speaker reflects how, in general, women’s lives are connected or “braided”, but in particular those women’s “death’s and lives”, how they “lived and died were interleaved also”.[5] Hacker finds ‘braid’ a useful metaphor for collective experience as the verb ‘braid’ suggests a gendered agency in finding connections between many people from diverse backgrounds in complex ways, while maintaining their distinct subjectivities and avoiding the simplification of their lives. It also suggests a sense of fate, as these women’s lives and deaths were not coincidental but rather destined to intertwine. The idea of fate works on many levels in the collection. In “Against Elegies”, Hacker writes that our lives are “taint[ed] . . . with complicity” for the tragedies of history, and in “August Journal” she describes that her body is “mark[ed]” by people who “are [not] her past”, but at the same “are [her] past”. The connection between destiny and the braid presents the female body as an embodiment of both suffering and history.

The braid is an embodied metaphor for Hacker’s agency. The metaphor of the interleaf suggests a layering or inserting of paper to create a cohesive structure, which if compared to the parallel structure of the lines of the poems signifies that these women’s names are interleaved in the verse lines to honour their legacies. In this image, Hacker aims to draw attention to the connection between Lorde’s and Wainwright’s lives as women, writers, and cancer sufferers. While the interleaf indicates an overlapping, the braid offers a way to interweave these voices into a form of her own making. As Hacker controls how the braid is seen by others, it becomes a metaphor for her poetry writing. Shapiro argues that Jewish American women writers “must invent new paradigms and myths to describe their writing” (7). Within the subject of female love in the poem (“go from two bodies’ / infinite approach to a crest of pleasure”), the braid signifies female intimacy, but in the context of “deaths and lives” it suggests a sense of binding by destiny.

The verb ‘braided’ is best understood within the social and political context depicted in “Journal Entries”, where Hacker voices gendered notions of suffering by interweaving her breast cancer narrative with stories of other women, some of whom are cancer patients, writers, doctors, friends, and family. Though their experiences vary, they nonetheless find points of connection to resist and rewrite cultural expectations by moving the experience from the individual to the group in a gendered account that, as Hacker says, is “not inclined to the machoism of keeping it to my/ourselves” (“Journal Entries” 207). This poem foreshadows Hacker’s later use of the braid to evoke an organic conception of embodied subjectivity that she will employ when searching for new metaphors to imagine her relationship to others.

In paying tribute to Lorde, Hacker returns to the militaristic metaphor when referring to Lorde’s struggle as “war” fought by “warrior women” involved in courageous combat. By evoking this image in connection with Lorde, Hacker is engaging in Lorde’s use of this metaphor in her own writing:

Each day’s obits read as if there’s a war on.

Fifty-eight-year-old poet dead of cancer:

warrior woman

laid down with the other warrior women. (76)

Hacker presents Lorde, the most powerful progenitor of breast cancer narratives, as heroic, a “warrior woman”, alluding to the female warrior recurring in Lorde’s poems who acts as muse, inspiring her to challenge her cancer with ferocity. This legendary character is evoked in Lorde’s elegy, “The Night-blooming Jasmine” in The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems 1987-1992 (1994):

Through the core of me
a fine rigged wire
upon which pain will not falter

nor predict

I was no stranger to this arena

at high noon
beyond was not an enemy
to be avoided

but a challenge
against which my neck grew strong

against which my metal struck
and I rang like fire in the sun.

I still patrol that line
sword drawn
lighting red-glazed candles of petition

along the scar
the surest way of knowing
death is a fractured border
through the center of my days. (52)

In the above lines, Lorde portrays the surgical scar that crosses her chest as a militarised zone in the same manner of military metaphors of aggressive warfare that Sontag refers to, echoing the popular rhetoric about cancer. “[A] fine rigged wire” that is unpredictable as to when “pain” will recur or death befall, both of which are not seen as inimical to the poet but rather as a “challenge” that transforms her into a stronger being that “rang like fire in the sun”. Lorde accepts the risk cancer brings and uses it in her work. Although Sontag argues against these metaphors, Lorde seems to be energised by them. It helps her reject what Talcott Pearson calls the “sick role” (Altman 10) and the position of victim that comes with not being in control of your body, even if she dies in the struggle. Reiterating her embodiment of this legendary figure, Adrienne Rich writes of Lorde on the back cover of The Cancer Journals: “Lorde is the Amazon warrior who knows how to tell the tale of battle: what happened, and why, what are the weapons, and who are the comrades she found” (1980).

In “Year’s End”, the speaker recalls being interrupted twice by the news of the women’s death, after which she returns to her lover’s “hands” and “mouth”:

Each time we went back to each other’s hands and

mouths as to requiem where the chorus

sings death with irrelevant and amazing

bodily music. (76)

Elegy may be delivered textually or through “bodily music”, with lovemaking functioning as a space of embodied attestation to the artistic and erotic as complementary to a transformative politics. The situation in the quatrain above is echoed in Hacker’s “Journal Entries” as the lovers “talked and held each other, and went back to, or forward with, [their] lovemaking, but in a different key” (202). “Sexual pleasure and death”, as Stephanie Hartman notes, “are not opposites here, but both side effects of embodiment; the fulfilment of lovemaking becomes a song and an offering, a tribute to the ‘unfulfilled promise’ of others’ lives” (164). This linking of defiance with pleasure is echoed in Douglas Crimp’s words:

Having learned to support and grieve for our lovers and friends; having joined the fight against fear, hatred, repression, and inaction; having adjusted our sex lives so as to protect ourselves and one another – we are now reclaiming our subjectivities, our communities, our culture . . .  and our promiscuous love of sex. (qtd. in Zeiger 23)

Although the chorus continually “sings death”, the “amazing bodily music” of lovemaking must go on. While “seven years apart, and two different lovers”, Hacker’s similar response to both women’s death shows that she is “eager to live [her] life out” so as not to die in “beds of / unfulfilled promise” (75).

[1] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 19 July 1991. Box 1, Folder 12. MHP.

[2] Rich, letter to Marilyn Hacker. 19 July 1991. Box 1, Folder 12. MHP.

[3] Alvarez, Julia. Letter to Marilyn Hacker. 1980. Box 1, folder 10. MHP.

[4] Similar to Lorde, Sonny Wainwright published a breast cancer book: Stage V: A Journal Through Illness (1984). She died in 1985.

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