One of the things to note about this week’s poem, “A Note Downriver” by Marilyn Hacker, is its use of Sapphic stanzas to evoke longing via nuanced meditations. A Sapphic stanza, named after the Greek love poet Sappho, consists of three lines of eleven syllables each (with stresses on the first, fifth, and tenth syllables) and a truncated fourth line of five syllables (stresses here on the first and fourth).
In light of the complexity of this stanzaic structure, I can’t help but marvel at Hacker’s use of it here in a poem essentially about a hangover. The stress on the first syllable of each line adds a troubled conviction to the speaker’s voice; their ruminations come off in a controlled yet shaky manner. This shakiness is augmented by the form, leading to such lyrical utterances as: “I feel muggy-headed and convalescent, / barely push a pen across blue-lined paper.”
The leap in phrasing and logic here evoke a struggle beyond language. At the precipice of articulation, articulation feels hindered; “push” is echoed by the nearby “scowl” and the later “grouse” and “growl.” This reading of echoes is furthered by the ending metaphor of rivers speaking, literally having the last, troubled word.
A Note Downriver – Marilyn Hacker
Afternoon of hangover Sunday morning
earned by drinking wine on an empty stomach
after I met Tom for a bomb on Broadway:
done worse; known better.
I feel muggy-headed and convalescent,
barely push a pen across blue-lined paper,
scowl at envelopes with another country’s
stamps, and your letter.
Hilltop house, a river to take you somewhere,
sandwiches at noon with a good companion:
summer’s ghost flicked ash from the front porch railing,
looked up, and listened.
I would grouse and growl at you if you called me.
I have made you chamomile tea and rye bread
toast, fixed us both orange juice laced with seltzer
We’ll most likely live in each other’s houses
like I haunted yours last July, as long as
we hear rivers vacillate downstream. They say
“always”; say “never.”
from Winter Numbers: poems (W.W. Norton)