Thursday, February 10, 2011

Brenda Hillman: Pieces of Air in the Epic and Practical Water

Something about breathing
The air inside a war

As they approached the capital
We couldn’t see what was breathing from the back
Calves’ horns a-swizzle
Ten thousand years of instruments
Decent amounts of free forevers

Horizons emphatically lifted in them

As they approached the place
The size of B

Saw the exhalation of an “enemy”
Breath being thought of
It had a kind of lining in it

You believed in the tuneless yes
Believed in the O very tunelessness
As they approached the capital
With dusty signs and needs

All blendy breathing
There is

A river that would drink water
An earth that would walk dirt
A fire that would singe flame
In that air (“Nine Untitled Epyllions,” Pieces of Air in the Epic)
I recently acquired the second and third in a proposed tetrology of poetry collections by American poet Brenda Hillman, her Pieces of Air in the Epic (Middletown CT: Wesleyan, 2005) and Practical Water (Middletown CT: Wesleyan, 2009). Obviously this means a fire collection is in the works; why does so much end in fire? Her two most recent trade poetry titles follow up her sixth poetry collection, the earth-centred Cascadia (Middletown CT: Wesleyan, 2001). Writing through the essences of the four elements—earth, air, water and fire—Hillman allows her poetry an open canvas of great magnitude, and achieves rare rhythms and cadences, each book written out as an exploration of space itself, and reads like one of the most dangerous kinds of writers: one who pays the closest of attention. In “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman” on the Poets & Writers website, conducted by Kevin Larimer, she talks of the “gathering of materials” for the first volume of her foursome, Cascadia:
“Place” of course is and isn't metaphoric. When I need a snack a place isn't a metaphor, it's a refrigerator. Except in rare transcendental times, shifting internal geographies must be managed in relation to external ones. The question of place takes us automatically to the problems of reality and the ideal. During this writing I felt part of a collective enterprise that seems less local than a movement, say, or group of styles; that enterprise has to do with using an individual or personal mythology and an awareness of the purely abstract functions of language together, to recontextualize experience of several different kinds-in the case of this book, the mind's movement, the earth's movement, the movements of cultural knowledge. Much of the contemporary poetry of interest owes a debt to a felicitous combination of what could be metaphorically called "geological" forces: various kinds of early twentieth century avant-garde writing (Stein, Futurism) and some older impulses of revolutionary Worthsworthian unfolding lyric bumping up against the symbolist and late modernist and then postmodernist tragic play and self cancellation. Space and time work this way. Poetry that has been systemized by single ideologies is boring, so I hope the book seems uncategorizable. The geology is of course in the poems themselves. The book Cascadia seems granitic in that it was written under various kinds of emotional pressure. It is conglomerate and metamorphic in that it seems like a gathering of materials about change.
Hillman composes air and water through a structure of politically-charged and lyric urgency in a pair of works that are remarkable in their breadth, structurally, politically and lyrically challenging without being obtuse. Particularly striking in her Pieces of Air in the Epic is the sequence “Nine Untitled Epyllions,” writing “tiny epics” that include such striking lines as the couplet “I am a seamstress. // I have no country.”
Near The Great Arch

There, in the same
spot as the annihilation
of the world, love
of existence stood. We
walked along. In boulevard
windows: plates, hatlike napkins
set for an imaginary
meal. Each act of
revenge has love as
a twin, but could
art convey this without
violence? In this parabola,
i recalled the little
dragon in the painting,
that high, curly arch
of its tail like
a syntax being inaugurated.
Polka-dogs on emerald wings.
The knight stabbed it;
maybe the vertical princess
prayed for it to live.
This was the end
of time. Dread had
not returned to listen. (Practical Water)
In this pair of poetry collections, her pieces explore the objects of air and water, composing poems as simple as description that are never simple description. What does it mean to be a poet attempting to record and respond to the world through lyric? In the piece “Reportorial Poetry, Trance & Activism” from Practical Water, she writes:
I recorded notes in Washington while attending hearings & participating in actions to make the record collective & personal. Working with trance while sitting in Congressional hearings i recorded details into a notebook.

If bees can detect ultraviolet rays, there are surely more possibilities in language & government. The possible is boundless.
When fiction writer Annabel Lyon was in Ottawa this week, reading through the Ottawa International Writers Festival, she talked about the realization of writing works that “matter,” wondering exactly how her short stories were helping the world, and rethinking her creative life as of September 12, 2001. Her response was to work into the novel, writing out what she possibly couldn’t through the form of the short story, and responding more directly to such as considerations of war, war trauma and disabilities, composing her much-celebrated novel The Golden Mean (2009) and YA novels All-Season Edie (2009) and Encore Edie (2010) as disguised political and social commentary through a veil of fiction. Hillman’s Practical Water almost responds in some of the same way, making references that would have previously been more subtle the central point, with poems such as “Ballad at the State Capital,” “International Dateline,” “In a Senate Armed Services Hearing,”  “In a House Subcommittee on Electronic Surveillance” or “Request to the Berkeley City Council Concerning Strawberry Creek.” What makes these pieces great is not in just the rare materials she manages to bring together to form pieces of writing, but the thoughtfulness she brings to difficult material, never letting the material overtake the poems. A particular highlight of her water collection is the third section, subtitled “(of the months when you work / & the months when you can’t)” that include a sequence of twin moon poems, pairing echoes of smallness upon smallness, the attention of two side by side per page, including this poem, a first to sequentially-next twin, “February Moon”:
February Dawn

The near woke
to a not-near

& in the heart’s brief Vermont
A fricative thaw—

(The spirits were being
extra quiet
so fear could finish
its satin chasm);

out the window:
ice-insects in a sequence

& children starting for the woods
without their violins—

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