A World in Flames
Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire
Wesleyan University Press, $22.95 (cloth)
Brenda Hillman’s latest poems blaze up like matches—they dance and flicker, flaring out by the bottom of the page. Stars and meteors are recurrent images: the Geminids, the Perseids, the Orionids. For millennia, shooting stars were considered harbingers of great crisis—think of the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Black Death in England, Francisco Pizarro’s catastrophic arrival in the Inca lands of Peru. And Hillman’s stars? Warning of dangers from drone warfare to global warming, from greed to its progeny protest and rage, they streak to wake us. Capping an ambitious elemental project—Hillman’s three previous books focused on earth, air, and water—Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire chronicles a world in flames.
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At first glance, one might put Hillman in the Dickinson line of American poetry—the ecstatic engagement with natural and psychic splendors, the capacity to see magic in the ordinary (and vice versa), the dashes. But in this book her impulse is Whitmanian: she catalogs, she exceeds. This impulse is overt in the “Argument” preceding each of the two long sections that make up the book: “microseasons, vowels, panicles, California grasses, existence, sex, the cosmos” reads the first sentence of the paragraph-long litany of things and topics which, the next forty poems will argue, are “made of fire.” One passage in this section, from “In Summer, Everything is Something’s Twin,” would have found a friendly home in Leaves of Grass: “they gather in western towns, / radicals growing weed in the woods, makers / of quilts & clouds, loggers, keepers / of the sick with their hounds; they / rest on weekends, in bars, / for love without reason or ledger.” A distinctive Hillman couplet puts a cap on the catalog with this book’s signature sidereal trope and sonic aplomb: “Castor & Pollux sink in the cougar’s cry . . . / in a month or so, the sky will swallow Gemini—”
The book opens with forty dedications, and many poems end with their own dedications, which brought to my mind the excessive blessings bestowed on everyone from the Post-Master to Lord Bath to “Mr Hart Mrs Fysh and Mr Grub” by Christopher Smart in Jubilate Agno. Hillman can sometimes sound as loopy as that eighteenth-century poet: “—So i can escape from the net the net / & dance with the dancing fleas.”
Hillman can also be a sucker for whimsy; so too can she favor a naïf voice (“Our little mother / prays in her sleep, our father rests / under his new big scar like America”). In this tendency, she is like another whimsical poet, E. E. Cummings, who winks behind her exuberant typographical play. Indeed such play is natural to a book about “letters on fire.” Hillman draws on the linguistic mysticism of Kabbalah, where letters and words have agency in and of themselves because they are made of God’s holy fire. She succeeds in making such aesthetic verve and mystic association her own, enlarging the poet’s linguistic toolbox to include cursive English, Arabic, and the Persian dialect Dari, which she wonderfully describes as “yoing yoing” and “simple sizzle star script.” In “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways,” the letter-play is the thing, with Hillman dismantling the word HATE and putting each letter, one by one, to bed. She sends each off with a heartfelt “Get well” and nudges them to get some rest “so they can live” beyond the hate they once composed. This moment with letter T is particularly vivid and funny: “Roman cross before the Christian thing. / Bump bump. Put that T to bed. Put / that Garamond T / to bed before we kill someone with it.”
It is old spell-magic, to dismantle a word in order to dismantle the thing it conjures into being. Spell-magic requires a mind geared toward the hidden and fantastical, and in this regard Seasonal Works recalls the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and especially George Herbert, some of whose poems take the shape of altars and angel wings. In “Smart Galaxies Work with Our Mother,” for example, Hillman splits each section with a “Great Rift” reminiscent of the Milky Way’s, swerving around our contemporary poetic preference for metaphysical restraint and eschewal of allegory. The Metaphysicals wrote poems noted for their wit and elaborate conceits: John Donne gave us a blood-sucking flea-as-lover; Hillman tells us that “volcanic basalt recalls its rock star father”—a surprising and delightfully apt personification (volcano as rock star), one of Hillman’s trademarks.
Hillman's impulse is Whitmanian: she catalogs, she exceeds.
Personification is a central and successful tool in Hillman’s hands: to argue that vowels, panicles, and California grasses “are made of fire” is to argue for the inspiring spark in everything—Gaia sentience. Personification makes such an argument implicit, as we can see in several of her poem titles: “The Body Politic Loses Her Hair,” “A Spiral Tries to Feel Again,” “The Seeds Talk Back to Monsanto.” While this device can sometimes feel precious, for the most part it does important animating (even animistic) work for a book about a world going up in smoke. Hillman wants to put the I-Thou back in what has become an I-it dynamic: “Oceans could be the Commons. As could volcanoes & the moon.” Her lines recover the sensuous from the infringements of the proprietary, restoring our relationship with the universe at large. Holistic consciousness also informs Hillman’s diction: she is an equal opportunity employer, working with the language of the sublime and the language of pop culture and market, often teaming them up to witty and weighty effect: “ask your doctor // if cosmic fire // is right for you.”
Throughout Seasonal Works, Hillman muses on the limits and efficacy of poetry to inspire political change. “Report on Visiting the District Office” opens with Hillman asking, “Who is poetry for? Truth is, i don’t know. The folks at tailgate parties before the game, in their lawn chairs—are they dying every day for lack of what is found there?” Later in the poem, after “It’s been proposed that we take poems about offshore oil drilling to Congressional staff,” Hillman writes, “Here we are in his office—3 women, 2 poems. i am grateful for their company. We are powerless to save the pelicans & the manatees.” But in the great “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie,” a poem that provides a brief, brilliant gloss on how to bring “practical miracles” into poetry, Hillman comes to this hopeful, helpful conclusion: “& though powerless to halt the destruction of bioregions, the poem can be brought away from the computer. The poet can accompany acts of resistance so the planet won’t die of the human.”
Some of the poems ignited by Hillman’s fierce activism fall short. Whimsy does not seem like it can be of much service to protest, as evidenced in this opening of “The Seeds Talk Back to Monsanto”: “& there was heard mourning in the syntax / there was heard brightness in the being of the / land. & there was heard don’t. / There was heard nnnnnooooo—” On the other hand, the terrific “The Body Politic Loses Her Hair” opens more vividly:
Words started to fall out of sentences in earnest around the time of the first aerial bombs . . . . When i read the word drone, my hair falls out in solidarity with old words. Stingless singless honey bees [Apis mellifera] or the music drones on & on, but now (at the top of Google), unmanned, where the “un” in the “unmanned” looks like little pinchers, the “u” & the “n” like the fingers on a throttle.
Here, what seems like whimsy (words falling out of sentences, Google, the “little pinchers” of “un”) is an attempt to retrieve “old words” from what Hillman calls their “evil twin[s]”: Will we ever innocently read the word “drone” again? Its meaning has been irrevocably and tragically altered.
Some quibbles: there are 84 poems in this book of 107 pages, which was about 30 pages too long for this reader. The poems devoted to Occupy felt underdeveloped: Could they not have been the seed for richer treatment in another collection, or chapbook? I wondered similarly about some of the essayistic poems, which sometimes seemed to drop poetry altogether: Could they not have been the seed for a book of lyric essays? (Such a book would find an eager audience.) At its weakest, the book offers up poems that feel composed of Hillmanisms: having “curlicue” address writer and reader, for example, or resorting to the diction of a 1950s TV housewife (with a dash of quantum physics) to offer colloquia on our extremely troubled world. Coming upon a line such as “the silent silent silence of blue everything—” I thought, as Frank O’Hara once implored Lana Turner, “Brenda Hillman we love you get up!”
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Hillman’s work often enacts what she called, in a 1997 interview in Hayden’s Ferry Review, “sideways movement.” Such movement counters our usual vertical conception of progress, what Hillman calls “a marching to heaven notion”: Why, she asks, does “better always mean up”? That question informs Hillman’s ideas about ambition: “Inclusiveness,” she writes, “seems to be the key to it rather than improvement.” She links ambition to the capacity to embrace, contrary to the more common assumption that it is tied to the talent to discern. This-and-this, she says, as opposed to this-not-that.
An ethos of inclusiveness “rather than improvement” is the philosophy that underwrites Hillman’s art, but it is also the ground in which a blurry generality such as “blue everything” takes root. At what point, when making art, does an anti-hierarchical worldview affect the this-not-that nature of precision? And yet, isn’t Hillman’s creed of inclusion just what the doctor ordered for our divided, diminishing world? It yields linguistic and structural wonders—does it really matter if she uses the word “silent” too many times to suit whatever ideas of rigor I hold? “Magic fought with the ideal,” Hillman says in “Thicket Group,” from her 1997 collection Loose Sugar. It is an apt expression for the arguments her work may incite in readers. What a rare opportunity, in an era besieged by merely accomplished poems.
At its best, Hillman’s book reminds us that one of the functions of art is to disturb: to startle us out of the ossified, inflexible forms of the routine and conventional. In this, Hillman has a particularly American genius. She “Barnums” the language, coaxing from it boggling feats. She tells tall tales about the alphabet and electrons and stars. She stanches our dark democracy-wound of Senate hearings and oil spills and drone strikes with eelgrass and original flame. Perhaps that is the gift of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire: in this age of unpardonable crimes against nature and persons and states, Hillman’s extraordinary work flares up again and again, as if to say, “Oh World I love you get up!”
Photo: Lali Masriera