A Braid of Garlic by Marilyn Hacker
Partly an elegy to Mahmoud Darwish, this poem combines a sorrowful cadence with a vigorous appetite for joy and survival
A Braid Of Garlic, the last poem in the collection, is partly an elegy for Mahmoud Darwish, “whom, daring, I called a brother”. The verse is written in an informal Sapphic quatrain, its stanzas sometimes impressionistic ‘scenes’ or vivid jottings. The dying fall of the feminine endings and foreshortened last lines seems appropriate to the overall mood. But against this sorrowful cadence is pitted a vigorous appetite for joy and survival, expressed in the muscularity of the syntax, and embodied by the “aging women” who continue valiantly to shop and write and celebrate their “memories and continence”.
That little litany of fruit and vegetables in the poem’s second line is the opening gambit against the “loss” that “comes round with every changing season”. Alertness to everyday sensuous pleasures underlines one of the affinities with Darwish. The speaker is observing what is surely a Parisian market, and savouring its smells and colours. Stanza six is like a still life, with its decorated, homely basket of “mottled purple shallots” and the garlic-braid looped nearby. The images spark off memories, the “counterpoint and candlelight” of a birthday celebration followed by an unsettling medical diagnosis. The braid of sensory experience is a lifeline and a bridge, but there is always a “wolf asleep underneath the table”. A contrary motion unsettles this narrative counterpoint, reversing the seasons so the spring-light seems to decline rather than lengthen.
Writing, like living, means taking chances. Preparing for the life-or-death risk of surgery, Darwish wrote: “this poem is a dice throw/ onto a board of darkness/ that glows and doesn’t glow/ words fall/ like feathers on sand” (The Dice Player). Hacker’s poems aren’t feathery or provisional: they are packed and dense, but also active, full of movement and shifts of perspective. This one turns outwards again towards the heroism of another woman writer struggling after ill health to “get her nerve back”. The “elegant proofs and lyric” and the “incoherent furious trolls in diapers” make a memorable antithesis. This is endurable, the poem seems to say, only because both exist on the same continuum – the “human spirit”.
Finally the poem returns to Darwish, and his last moments. The butterfly, one of his significant images, symbolises the soul, of course, but it becomes a metaphor here for physical reality: we see the colour of surgery, “crimson”, and the “wings” seem like an opened chest cavity, exposing the faltering heart.
Garlic, old folk-cure for numerous ills and device against vampires, can’t stop the butterfly from vanishing. But the braided stanzas of a poem are tenacious, forming a tough loop of imagination and language that might outlast death. Whether the writer’s war zone is a country, or her body, or both, this poem reminds us, as does the poetry of Darwish, that the demand is essentially the same: to bear witness.
A Braid of Garlic
Aging women mourn while they go to market,
buy fish, figs, tomatoes, enough today to
feed the wolf asleep underneath the table
who wakes from what dream?
What but loss comes round with the changing season?
He is dead, whom, daring, I called a brother
with that leftover life perched on his shoulder
He made one last roll of the dice. He met his
last, best interlocutor days before he
lay down for the surgery that might/might not
extend the gamble.
What they said belongs to them. Now a son writes
elegies, though he has a living father.
One loves sage tea, one gave the world the scent of
his mother’s coffee.
Light has shrunk back to what it was in April,
incrementally will shrink back to winter.
I can’t call my peregrinations ‘exile,’
but count the mornings.
In a basket hung from the wall, its handle
festooned with cloth flowers from chocolate boxes,
mottled purple shallots, and looped beside it,
a braid of garlic.
I remember, ten days after a birthday
(counterpoint and candlelight in the wine-glass),
how the woman radiologist’s fingers
probed, not caressing.
So, reprise (what wasn’t called a ‘recurrence’)
of a fifteen-years-ago rite of passage:
I arrived, encumbered with excess baggage,
scarred, on the threshold.
Through the mild winter sun in February,
two or three times weekly to Gobelins, the
geriatric hospital where my friend was
getting her nerve back.
At the end of elegant proofs and lyric,
incoherent furious trolls in diapers.
Fragile and ephemeral as all beauty:
the human spirit –
while the former journalist watched, took notes and
shocked, regaled her visitors with dispatches
from the war zone in which she was embedded,
biding her time there.
Now in our own leftover lives, we toast our
memories and continence. I have scars where
breasts were, her gnarled fingers, these days, can hardly
hold the pen steady.
Thousands mourn him, while in the hush and hum of
life-support for multiple organ failure,
utter solitude, poise of scarlet wings that
flutter, and vanish.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/may/10/poem-week-braid-of-garlic