Seasonal Works with Fiery Letters, the final volume in Brenda Hillman's tetralogy on the four elements, runs the gamut from poems that talk on the surface to poems that bring alive the silence in language. As an instance of the former, take “masked chickadee, masked waxing / (masked waxwing is pretty darn hard to say),” or the delightful but thematically idle

                                     stripestripe, behind
   their mother, stripestripestripe baby skunks

   have entered the spicy ground like a ribbon
        falling from a girl who’s learning to read. 

                                      (“To Stem the Time We Spent”) 

The verbal mimicry of visual striping and the ribbon-coming-to-rest pentameters of the two last lines form a fine corporeal sympathy—and, after all, poetry is welcome to travel fellowly if the heart is in it. But the pretty simile of the ribbon is a mere surface impression—what used to be called “fancy.” There is also in the poems a sprinkling of pseudo-important etymologies, imitations of animal noises, and the Latin names for plants and animals. Hillman’s usual aesthetic keenness relaxes at such moments and you may think honest to god she’s entitled, given her frequent gravity. And it is right that a poet doesn’t permit you to know quite where you will find her next. But Hillman may be too intent on making every verbal moment, especially the slighter ones, singular, stamping objects with a species of wit, as when she speaks of “double-knuckled / pines.” She is especially observant of nature, good, but she crowds her observations in as if to demonstrate her knowledge and her ecopoetic credentials. Still, it is all part of what makes her special, one of the supreme Quirkies and dear Earnest Ones of our day. (Nothing is simple here; the weaknesses are lined with value).

The other end of Hillman’s range is—well, everything, the paradoxical open totality in which we find ourselves. In relation to it (and Hillman is more vocal about the matter in this book than in the preceding one, Practical Water), Congress and the president of drones, the corporations, the environmental criminals, are as blind as the three blind mice and just as insignificant. Which, however, doesn’t keep them from pouring crude on our paths, spewing carbon dioxide into the air, practicing “pre-crime justice,” or keeping their obscene accumulations of capital out of the reach of the poor and the middle-class. Hillman proposes that not to feel the whole, which is sacred as such, which is love’s law, is precisely to lack size, as opposed to, say, the snake in “Equinox Ritual,” which 

                        slithers over serpentine
           then down to the first 
                        dark where every cry has size—

(The ear hears the rhyme of “cry” and “size” as covenantal.)


Here the “first / dark” (the infinity of the latter word discretely separated from the insistent numerical finitude of the first) is, I think, the equivalent of Gnostic light, which was Hillman’s initial symbol of the sacred. The somersault of her spiritual imagery from light into dark is of no consequence compared to the common inviolable quality of each, the depth which is height which is width in each, where everything is both center and circumference. Hillman the poet began as a Gnostic warrior, a “short Irish hothead” (in truth, not that short, but she wants “size,” and not that hotheaded, but she wants power to put down Power), a David-of-the-slingshot sort who stood up to the Archons as now she stands up to Congress and the giant Corporations—e.g., Monsanto of the engineered seeds. Her environmentalism, her Code Pink activism, her Occupy credentials (her short series of poems on the Oakland Occupation are of the first water), all have a metaphysical underpinning and motive. You see it clearly at the beginning of the poem that ends with “the first / dark”:

                       —so we said to the somewhat: Be born—
          & the shadow kept arriving in segments,

         cold currents pushed minerals
        up from the sea floor, up through
 
       coral & labels of Diet Coke blame shame
               bottles down there— 

             it is so much work to appear! 

Here “somewhat” is a noun, a name for what has no name, a verbal gesture toward a great something that never entirely manifests itself, as her sympathetic but impatient line “it is so much work to appear!” acknowledges. (Indeed, has it not even been born?) “Shadows” aren’t the rich first dark, which, if known to us only in “somewhat” form, must be somewhere, maybe deep down everywhere, the essential "what," synonymous with Being, itself the pinching subjection of the eternal Now to time. The first dark is experienced on our level (“lovel” I typed, which in its way says it) as love's law—as love of the earth, love of light, love of the spirits in things, love of poetry, love of friends. With Hillman, then, as we are making a noisy nuisance of ourselves in the U.S. Capital building, we are at the same time in that cosmos of being which, under varying formulations—in Blake and Wordsworth, Rilke, Yeats, Pound, and Lawrence—opened up in the vacuum left by Christianity, before disappearing into the sinkhole of unimaginative Capitalism. Hillman has cleared the rotten leaves off the neglected wellhead and freed the waters. By ignoring Capitalism? Hardly. The destruction wreaked by the bosses makes the Somewhat dearer and more crucial than ever—the only dark brighter than bomb flashes or the smiles of CEO's. 

A sacralizing intuition might be implicit in poetry itself, at least in the lyric; and if that can be argued, Hillman is not one of the last of the Romantics, but a more emboldened and articulate reader than most poets are of the soul of the lyric. She divines it, coaxes it out, enlarges it. But she didn't wait for poetry to teach her spirit to be broadcast: in childhood her sensibility was already dangerously wide open, more unmanageable even than Wordsworth's: she was afraid to see a second movie because she was poured like milk into a glass in watching the first and was terrified that she could not get out again. (But milk will pour, everything pours.) In those early years, everything was “everything”— jumbled together as in “everything earth air beauty fire wood water love blood, time is what you need to mix up & what is anything not god.” Animist, an old- time pagan, the adult Hillman believes there are spirits in things, genres and choirs of spirits, spirits in trees, spirits all over—of course there are. I suppose she thinks there are even spirits in syllables, and in letters, too: in one poem she takes the word HATE apart to give the h, a, t, and e a much needed rest (“Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways”). But you cannot be an animist the whole day long (well, she almost could), not if you have a fight on your hands. So the sacralizing Brenda shares Brenda with activist Brenda and the result is an event in contemporary American poetry—unique, pronged, important.

A third Brenda, quotidian, organizes the others and writes a new kind of poem, a close-to wrangling of the dialectic of culture & politics, private affairs and public opinion, as it engages this very minute, right here:

   —& the wren can see us
 from its canister of loud joy but we cannot

see it. Often a particle of chaos passes
& we barely notice in the summer air. 

  The baby is running: he clings
to his cardboard cow. The debt
ceiling opens like the Astrodome; 

          Congress teeters, the right wing swells;
the left wing withers till the body cannot fly. 


(“The Nets between Solstice & Equinox”)

Dense, broken, zigzaggy—such is the new lyric. It is a series of notes—of nodes— like chipped beads on a string worn in Capital's “Chipped wedding ring light,” but worn only for the moment, as opposed to an essay on, an essay at, the destiny of “Man” (to speak in the old-style). Now here now there a poem will jerk in pin-ball fashion, as if in ADD instability, as (1) it addresses the dailiness of love, (2) notates plants, (3) imitates a squirrel outside of the window (“Trytobechchchchch”), (4) links the tents of Occupy to Achilles', (5) offers random observations of still other kinds, and (6) skewers economic and political deviltry. “To sing a contaminated lyric”—that, at least, is a role left to the poet, a poet of the left. April Bernard: “In a culture where it's very hard to get the whole picture it becomes almost necessary to grab for the detail.” But even this quotidian and activist Hillman doesn't close herself off, not for long, from the Somewhat's local, planetary vibrations. On the contrary, its “work” remains her deepest fidelity and guide to her own work; it motivates and sustains her. “Art circles the unnameable,” she remarks in “To the Writing Students at Orientation.” “Why? It is the great task.” 

So I wouldn’t make too much of the political thrusts in Seasonal Works. They are contributory, not central. For Hillman, everything is fieldwork. Everything is relational (or should be) rather than atomistic, everything circulates in the gravity of the rest, is part of an always changing composite ambiguously situated in the Somewhat. (Not that the parts form a chord; accord, however, could be hoped for.) She is a poet of both close and wide registrations, a state of the moment poet as well as a poet of the moment of the state. She is almost alone, in fact in keeping a kind of spiritual journal in which the personal is porous to the public, and why stop at the public: porous to the cosmic, as well. Hers, then, is the “personal” squared: immense, encompassing. Who else, for instance, would parallel in a series of poems a mother’s 50s household “georgics” with galaxies, and do it charmingly, tenderly, and in the analogue of a structure spaced out in two columns? A rarity, then. A necessary poet. But “keeping a kind of spiritual journal” is the wrong phrase for what should not be thought of as secretarial. Hillman is at most times a true creator, frowningly intent (so “some tell me to relax”), her poems grooved, corrugated, strange in typography, like a brain, her and not hers.

The collection is free-range. Peripatetic. Variable. The style alters. In the following passage from “At the Solstice, a Yellow Fragment,” you can see how Hillman struggles to feel out the Gestalt and unshakable presence of “late capitalism,” and at the same time ridicules it with nursery rhymes and rhythms, and hints admonitorily at the Deep Dark:

                 preeeee - dark energy - woodrat
           in the pine, furred thing


                  & the fine,
         a suffering among syllables, stops

         winter drops from cold,      cold,
      miracle night (a fox 
                deep in its hole under yellow
              thumbs of the chanterelles, 

            (no gold Gold thumbs, Goldman Sachs
                pays no tax . . . (baby goats 

      in the pen, not blaming God,
            not blaming them— 


      (alias: buried egg of the shallow-helmet turtle
                   [
Actinemys marmorata]

       alias: thanks for calling the White House
                    comment line))))


How does this style relate to that of the stripestripe skunks or the “somewhat” failing to appear with the Coca Cola bottles? It is sprung in relation to them: you can see how nearly impossible it is to characterize or categorize the poetry in the new book in a simple way. The verse above is a scrambled version of the newest Hillman, who, to repeat, fights on the ground of the quotidian. It stands out in its somewhat desperate manic play (a freer writing, it points to a potential new direction for Hillman). It is not untypical, however, in notating objects with random effect while in fact uniting them in a mood, in this case one that means ill to the enemy. Couched in this collection among the earlier sorts of Hillman poems, the new sort synthesizes heterogeneous material in an almost wild, “thoughtless” way. Above all, it avoids conclusion—it foregoes the gymnast’s dazzling dismount. The poems do not say, “there, I’ve given you the material optimized, and, look, I've stuck my performance,” but, rather, “the struggle must continue.” The boldfaced dedications consisting of privatizing initials at the ends of many of the poems, sometimes several in a row, would be even more jarring if the poems bonged at the close. Instead, the initials add one more comment, maybe sadder than the others: she and her friends are all, in a sense, private and in the larger picture anonymous. The final tone is accordingly both loving and elegiac.

There are, then, in this full-to-overflowing volume (105 pages, that much marvelous writ- ing), various kinds of poems and postures. It is not my purpose to present the whole range; that is the book’s own work. Without having got down into much of the nitty-gritty of the activist poems, I will please myself by citing a few of the book's softer, more sensitive passages—evidencing not the “hotheaded ̋ but the softer Brenda. One comes at the end of “After a Death in Early Spring”:

                     The humans bury their dear one
    in a light wind—the soul


    is unafraid. The maker of plots hesitates—
    so “out of order”: that a son should go first . . .

                   Matter flares in the void,
    particles of chaos meet particles of song—
    thoughts around the edges

    of the mind dissolve—

                  spirits spirits, green & brown
                  why have you left him here
                  even for an hour?


    He had a merry laugh & harmed no one.
        Swallows, violet in the violet shadows,

    circumfix their ovals. His life
        was magnified by longing. 

    He loved avenues in cities, Eden,
        the crinkled tops of water; 

                  he gave up dread for certain
                  light on certain clothing— 


You see how it is in this verse of traditional eloquence: she is a poet of piercing tenderness. This is why she hesitates to write about worldly Power in a full power mode of her own, like a pyrotechnical Mayakovsky, a fabling Blake, and resorts to jerky tracking shots in poems that knock about between nature and the stock exchange. Power of one sort or another has always been her bugbear, her negative subject, She can be angry but, wait, big-souled, she is constantly reminded that she is gentle and loving and (therefore) sad as well as prepared to be terribly enlarged as “the edges / of the mind dissolve—.”

Who has written better about the wonder of a new-born grandson? I quote from “To Leon, Born Before a Marathon”: it begins, “When you were born, / they fell in love with sleep (“they,” perhaps, are “the immortals” referred to in another poem, or unspecified spirits):

                    doves delivered the five wax notes;
              a pointed moon brought in its radiance.

                    Some were strapping distance on their feet
              as you cried out among the architectures; 

                            month of the fiddlehead,
              hounds-tongue, coltsfoot; 

             month of the normal rains— 

And it ends:


                   You brought
          two kinds of hours
 
 
          into days; one kind was blank;
   one had your expression on its face—


The poem remembers Plath’s “Morning Song” and “Nick and the Candlestick,” but places a child in a quotidian world of real distance and time and real flowers and rain (“month of the normal rains” is classically good) and faces it toward the unmade future with a beloved face. Hillman’s somewhat worrying quirkiness is kept out (for instance, the plants are simply and beautifully named) by the sudden depth of her welcome of the child and the shock of recognizing his identity and destiny as a creature of time (here, then, is “man,” old-style).

Am I saying that her swaths of traditional eloquence are the purest Brenda? She doesn't want it that way; doesn't want purity. Her eccentricity isn’t an accident, a blemish; it's intended to tweak the Somewhat, give it nubs or runs as in nylons, snag it with the me, me here. She would David it (without letting the stone fly; fly at what?), for why must it be so slow to appear, so some? Would write it into manifesting itself, which it can only do through the “specific” (“Love, literature is in flames, / it was meant to be specific”). Tweaks it in order to find relief from the “everything is everything” of childhood, which has never departed, just abated. Hence, for instance, the scientific nomenclature, that cold lens on and distance from plants and animals (whose best purpose is a sideways rebuke to hothanded Capital, and whose shallowest function is to signal ecopoetics).

So who is the truest of all the Brendas? She does not exist, and that is a motive for poetry. She is not the poet of “the bosses are known by new wars” (“After a Very Long Difficult Day”) or “Big oil has bought everything but not my armpits, which are sweating in solidarity with the Commons before the 18th century Enclosure Acts” (“Report on Visiting the District Office”), she is not the poet who in the very next poem says “Matter flares in the void, / particles of chaos meet particles of song —,” she is not the poet of “Mama studies ridges in her gloves, she is our eternal love,” or of “We’re not good relaxers, childhood & I, / we suffer a leafy need while God is a missing / hypotenuse” (“The Practice of Talking to Plants”). I don’t know where she is, nor does Hillman, I think, which is why she is so heterogeneous and—ardently, arduously—writes so many poems. And yet it is all Hillman. You open the door of her poems and you know her. 



Caveat emptor: Together with Forrest Gander and others, Brenda Hillman and I were co- editors of the New California Poetry Series. 

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