Jane Satterfield

The Golden Road
Poems by Rachel Hadas
80 pages | TriQuarterly | $16.95 (paper)
achel Hadas' poetry has long been admired for its witty poise and elegiac grace, her prose for its crystalline brilliance and Woolfian verve. Whether she is writing about the pleasures of reading Greek, the place of poetry in our lives ("a home remedy," as she puts it, for the "ache of appetite"), the puzzles of modern medicine, or the shock of recognition a mother feels on noticing her grown son's resemblance to his recently deceased father, Hadas compels us to consider the urgency and import of our remembering. Although The Golden Road may be read in tandem with Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry (2011), Hadas' elegy for her husband, composer George Edwards, this newest collection also reflects the poet's growing interest in narrative medicine and the science of neurology. Mapping a path through grief, The Golden Road reveals striking new directions for a poet whose lyric meditations illuminate life's joyous and darkest mysteries.

Like Woolf, Hadas' fierce and playful intellect is stirred by the fixed verities of urban life; she is a poet energized by the companionable motions of transit. As the collection opens, we meet the poet en route: via train to the airport, she catches a glimpse of a tiny dog who "peeps/from the tote bag in a woman's lap." The tote bag pattern prompts the poet to consider larger patterns at work in the literal fabric of life, the way that

Once you see the pattern, it recurs:
origin, journey, wound, and destination,
journey originating with the wound,
destination cycling back to journey.
("The Pattern")

Throughout The Golden Road, Hadas extends her exploration of journey and return, loop and pattern. "So many seasons come and gone," the poet muses in "Nostos." While taking in the stark beauty of a Greek village, she retraces her past with each footstep. The poet finds herself re-entering myth from many points-of-view: she is at once "Odysesus who returns," Penelope, faithful wife "who never knew/for certain it was he," as well as Telemachus "who hesitates." This state of uncertainty-"wavering, a mirage of heat"-has taken on new meaning now that memory sometimes hesitates and the poet "later remembers a face/or voice I think I used to know." In swift, painterly strokes, the poet captures both the "midday sun that burns and burns" and the traveler's perplexed recognition that time's passage creates a landscape that is at once familiar and strange. "Here was the bakery years ago," she notes, wondering how much of the island she could retrace from memory alone. When a "lean and grizzled man" she remembers as "skinny boy who ran,/a fisherman's son, along the quay," asks "Are you Rachel?," the poet assents, wryly noting that "years have blurred/our mutual identity." "It's me," she muses, "-but me is just a word." Throughout the poem, Hadas threads her stanzas with subtle rhyme, underscoring the deeper currents beneath the poem's lyrical surface, allowing her to shift from a moment of ordinary vision to the visionary. The brief span of human lives stands in stark contrast with the cyclical passages of historical and geological time. "As leaves fall," Hadas writes, "so it is with men./The great stone mountain bides its time."

Elsewhere, Hadas turns her attention to the transient nature of identity, paying particular attention to the ways women's roles shift with age. Wives become widows; mothers, grandmothers, and "what we take for granted/vanished, reconfigures, disappears." Hadas is attentive too, to inner weather, and charts the mind's deepening currents. Such concerns are particularly evident in "First Persons," as the poet bemusedly questions language's descriptive accuracy. "All those youthful outpourings featuring 'we,'" she observes, seem, from a later vantage point "no more than a gesture/Intending to demonstrate/That I came coupled,/That therefore I was desirable/And no sad solitary." And yet, the poet finds, paradoxically, "as the shadows of experience lengthen,/One's core seems less substantial." From her current vantage point, the poet finds that the "I" of her youthful verse remains equally elusive-unromantic, unemblematic, nearly unrecognizable to an older self who is surely "not a forest nymph, a tree/A sibyl or a goddess or a bird." The poet's hope? To end "as echo of a word."

Nowhere is the fragility of life and words more evident than in Hadas' powerful elegies for poet Rachel Wetzsteon. "In Memoriam, Rachel Wetzsteon (1967-2009)" situates readers in the dark season of Wetzsteon's suicide, opening as it does with an epigraph alluding to Auden's elegy for Yeats. As fans of her work may know, Wetzsteon was a gifted critic as well as a poet, and had, in 2007, published Influential Ghosts, a critical study of Auden. As Hadas mourns the loss of a fellow artist and close friend, she takes careful note of the mind's meditative turns as it seeks to process grief. For this elegist, the act of pondering the inevitable question-"what can bring our dead back?/Or do they ever leave at all?"-unleashes a potent chain of association framed in rhyming lines whose subtly crafted caesuras simulate the pace of tempered thought. Hadas notes how her son speaks "of a dad-shaped hole" and how she herself recalls her own father, "long absent, yet a presence too,/still now, in everything I do." Asking "where can we say that ends begin?," Hadas moves back in time to the summer of 1966, recalling with vivid immediacy the way that "father and I gaze over the Styx-/I mean the Hudson." This "last talk face-to-face" Hadas shared with her father, a renowned Columbia classicist, had taken place at Sakura Park, the very setting that would one day give its name to Wetzsteon's third poetry book. Hadas allows similar connections to unfold throughout this deeply heartfelt poem, paying tribute to fate's unpredictable turns:

He died. The next year you were born.
In a lovely poem you envision
A Greenwich Village encounter with Auden,
Besneakered bard six decades older
Than toddler Rachel in her stroller.
He would have read your work with pride . . .

Hadas' careful recollection underscores the tragedy of a life cut short but also seeks consolation in the memory of the younger poet's promise, the "infectious laughter laced with pain,/the poise and wit in every line/love set in motion." Mourning the younger Rachel's fatal decision that led her the "realm of Hades, not Apollo," Hadas reconfigures the tropes of classical mythology, finding in the "sooty black/cave" and "lonely stifling tomb" an "anteroom" where

. . . Beyond the smoke, the choking heat
wait other poets whom you greet
Auden, Larkin, other friends-hard
to see where the circle ends
of kinsmen holding out their hands.

In a second elegy, Hadas considers the "last time I glimpsed her among the living." Revisiting a memory of having glimpsed Wetzsteon (paused momentarily outside the West Side Market one evening as autumn turned to winter) from the window of passing bus, Hadas crafts a poignant portrait of missed connections that haunt friends and family in the wake of suicide. Though several months later, "the trees are still bare," the poet notes that

The days are getting longer. When you died
in late December, each day was already
adding on a sliver of new light.
("The Last Glimpse," 34)

The poems' final stanza reflects on the everlasting cycle of the seasons and is an exemplar of Hadas' apt observation and classical restraint.

As critic Matthew Brennan observes, "Hadas is sometimes classified as a New Formalist, but it's a misleading and restrictive label, seeing as how she has mixed free and formal verse ever since her 1975 debut, Starting From Troy. Hadas continues to employ the fullest range of poetic tradition and "Macbeth," a compelling sestina is especially revelatory of Hadas' openness to the felicities of a seemingly restrictive form. Here, Hadas reflects on her reasons for revisiting this play at the theatre twice in a single season. "The point was not the plot," she observes, although

. . . its onward arc in fact occasioned
with a weird and unexpected beauty
more than one relish of resemblance
to what I had been going home to every night.

As the sestina unfolds, the poet considers a "Lady Macbeth/moment," her "occasion/to do a deed,/then lie awake at night/when darkness only offset some lost beauty." Though her tightly wrought and dramatically paced stanzas, Hadas tracks resemblances as they reverberate through her life. A social worker's email about "a rough night" echoes the Shakespearian line that captures "the murderer in midplot," and the poet is led to conclude that "Resemblances/let tragedy yoke disparate occasions/even with the perilous stuff Macbeth is made of." The form's turns provide the poet with insight. Plot, she observes, as Aristotle taught, provides intellectual and emotional comfort, even if its "storehouse of resemblances,/beauty of imitations" is "occasioned by our rough nights." Elswhere, Hadas employs the ballade to create a panoramic view of memory's rich storehouse. As a visit to the family's summer home summons vivid memories of remarkable moments and "the ghost of generations'/Worth of family conversations," the poet confronts her own mortality:

My memory stretches fifty years.
How can I not feel trepidation
Speaking of people who appear
Only in terms of vague summation?
("Ballade on Pumpkin Hill")

With each passing decade, the poet can foresee how the foundation of the house will "slope and shift . . . From there,/It doesn't take much imagination/To picture utter ruination-/Bare ruined choirs where cold winds blow." The poem's retrospective panorama builds to a strikingly unsentimental conclusion:

I'm not so sure we should despair.
Although of self-congratulation
I superstitiously beware,
Today I'm brimful of emotion-
Naturally mixed, but a large portion
Feels like joy. Love and let go?
That was another summer, though.

The refrain's insistent return drives the poem's captivating vision: one that is elegantly poised, mournful, yet never morbid.

Hadas is a keen observer of domestic life and gender dynamics. In "The Language of Women," Hadas reflects on the news women share in letters that pour "forth with so much fluency and grace/the boundaries that separated each heart/become almost impossible to trace." The necessities of women's domestic lives required "a multitasking tongue," one "not limited to the dialect we speak/among ourselves." The common male complaint that women "sound like chickens," the poet suggests, may well be "contempt or fear//or maybe envy that we women know/at least two modes of speech and maybe three:/the public and the private, high and low." Ultimately, Hadas' musings lead her to consider the wisdom that "our mothers taught/if we were lucky: it is possible/to think, laugh, love and rage with mouth tight shut." Silence, she wryly observes, is another source of power, a "secret language open to us all."

In "Making the Difference," Eavan Boland considers the woman poet's "birthright" in poetry, her own indebtedness to feminism, and reflects on the ways that that a separatist ideology may prove aesthetically limiting. At the same time, Boland maintains, it is essential for women poets to forge a voice and vision that is "generous to that past and delicate in manner to the spirit of a tradition which sustained her." Hadas' work continues to model this and more. Given that she is a poet who has accomplished so much within in the realms of formal and free verse there's some at risk of her being undervalued by poets who may be attracted to a single strand of her verse. The Golden Road reminds us that Hadas is a major figure and an essential voice who has created a formidable body of work that resists that shifting currents of poetic fashion; it provides pleasure and insight for poets present and future who seek a learned and lively travelling companion in the art. (1952)


Jane Satterfield's most recent book is Her Familiars (Elixir, 2013). She is the author of two previous poetry collections: Assignation at Vanishing Point, and Shepherdess with an Automatic, as well as Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the William Faulkner Society's Gold Medal for the Essay, the Florida Review Editors' Prize in nonfiction, and the Mslexia women's poetry prize. In 2013, she was awarded the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize from The Bellingham Review for her poem "Elegy with Trench Art and Asanas." Satterfield lives in Baltimore and teaches at Loyola University Maryland.


Jane Satterfield


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Marion Ettlinger: I was raised in Queens, New York, the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants. I was educated at The High School of Music & Art and The Cooper Union, both in Manhattan. Shortly after graduation, I moved to Northern Vermont, where I lived for seventeen years. Although I have been practicing portraiture since the Sixties, it was in the early Eighties that I found my true vocation in photographing poets and writers, who as subjects remain compelling and irresistible to me still. Using only natural light and black and white film, I continue this work based in Manhattan.
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