Brenda Hillman

Reading Brenda Hillman


One hot and dusty August, I drove to California. It was 1994, I drove alone, not quite happy but willing to pretend otherwise. Why was I doing this? Where was I really going? What did it all mean? Acres of trellised vines lined the highway; the sun’s strength made the vineyards of Marin County quiver. My destination: Napa Valley Writer’s Festival. Ahead of me a long line of cars snaked through the fields, their drivers came to taste the local wines. I sang along to Iris Dement with the window rolled down.

I attended two dozen or more readings in less than a week. Each night I drove to another vineyard, gathered with other young poets, marveled at the estates (my favorite was the Franciscan Monastery), and drank the free wine. Still, the readings, given by distinguished American poets, bored me. I couldn’t shake my need to act 16, drive fast and blast music, shifting into 5th gear on the highway above San Francisco, as the hot wind blew though my hair. I spent much of my time at readings doodling on a tablet of yellow legal paper. I ached to find a something other than what I was hearing–but what? California seemed dry. In in a county spilling with wine, I didn’t feel intoxicated.

At last, a surprise guest to the festival read a poem which made me look up from my doodling. It went something like this one:

The Servant
–So you whispered to the soul Rise up!
but the soul was not ready.
–Get up! It’s our turn! But that part of the soul
stayed still. So you checked the list
of those who existed
but the soul was not on the list, the soul
responded to none of those things.
Very well, you said. He sank back in his furs.
And you started across the plain to one he loved

The self-consciousness of this poem sent shivers through me. Whoever was playing with the idea of not “existing” was doing a good job. I was hearing something I could relate to–not a perfected self and world, or even the longing for perfection, but a confirmation of confusion. And what was more remarkable, this confusion was not morbid. This poet was a master of patience and invention. I jumped into my car and sped to San Francisco, looking for Brenda Hillman’s books. Somewhere, I found Death Tractates, a second-hand copy, dedicated to someone else, (who would sell such a gift?). My friends left me alone with her; another one of my obsessions, like poetry itself.*Brenda Hillman’s books have been published by Wesleyan and her last book, Loose Sugar, was nominated for the 1998 National Book Circle Award. She graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1976, and has held Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. In spite of these distinctions, her books are not easy to find. I had to mail-order Fortress and Bright Existence from the Grolier Bookstore in Boston.

* * * *

Two years after attending the Napa Valley Writer’s Festival, I moved to New York, where Brenda Hillman’s work appeared again. In the meantime, I had read Death Tractates, liked it, and not understood it. Following what Jeanette Winterson has called “art as the paradox of active surrender”, I had even so tried to imitate one of Hillman’s poems. With mixed results, I have to tell you. Maybe because, unlike Hillman, I didn’t have the stamina to revise a piece 50 times or more. Or because, the closer I got to it, the more I realized how unimitatable it was. I was not a Gnostic, I did not live in Hillman’s landscape. I couldn’t easily find the equivalents in my world.

What I shared with her was the feeling that it is hard to live. Hillman seemed to be devising a way to write into life’s hardness so that its dialectics did not separate even more into painfully fragmented consciousnesses. Instead, she stood inside them, looking and wondering. That seemed bold. Hillman acknowledged this fragmenting, and wrote from these junctions of refusals. At her craft talk at Napa Valley, she had said (swinging her legs from the table she sat on) that she had few principles for writing, maybe four, and one was “revise towards strangeness.” She does sound strange. Like here, at the end of “Little Furnace”:

What is the meaning of this suffering I asked
and the voice– not Christ but between us– said
you are the meaning.
No no, I replied, That
is the shape, what is the meaning.
You are the meaning, it said

This unusual—–and yet so intimate–—voice, set in equally unusual punctuation, talks of relationships (even our relationship with ‘ourselves’) beginning and ending in unexpected places. Things in our lives develop both with and also against what we know. In this way, Hillman’s phrasings and stanzas act as maps to the odd –and always startling– fact that things are often profoundly off-kilter, slipping down to the side when they are supposed to go straight ahead. They also bear (as in ‘carry’) Hillman’s interior life uncompromised by her act of having ‘made art’ of it. From this interiority (the thing poets usually code, or hide), Hillman writes fiercely, with accuracy and tenderness.

* * * *

Brenda Hillman is a small woman; small as in petite. The times I’ve seen her read, maybe half a dozen times, she’s worn floral print dresses. She did at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in 1996, one warm, blustery fall day when she stood on a large stage in the main tent, and conversationally read, “Male Nipples”. I could see the dress vaguely, even though she was no more than a tiny speck in the distance. I might be wrong, as only the tones of her amplified voice, not her physical image, truly reached us; it was as though the poems were coming out of the sound system not from a person. But I like this idea of her, especially when I read her own comment on poetry’s “vast inwardness [that] pushes out its shadowy flower–language foregrounded as purely as possible, however abstract and symbolic—.” The voice of this ‘shadowy flower’ her voice, is as surprising as her voice on the page. She’s called it, a ‘slightly whiney middle-American female voice.’ Not someone you’d imagine at first who could be so tough.

But truly, while reading, Hillman radiated an unassuming intelligence. Emotion and idea lived powerfully there, which is what I hope to find in all poetry. Hillman’s work also creates a distinctive position in American poetry generally: halfway between the seamless narrative poets and the language poets. She marks a third point. As a triangulating force, her work challenges readers to expect even more from language and from ways of expressing our movements through existence in time, gender, spirit, idea and domesticity. This third point, this “out there,” is something else I love about her work.

* * * *

“Soul”, a frightening word, spills all over Bright Existence. Who can use that word without being run out of town? Hillman admits that at times her work seems inflected with a spiritual ‘pose’ borne of California’s New Age culture. What does “soul” mean? A friend had asked me that one day at the beach when I had put “soul” in a poem. If she was in English class, she said, she’d want to ask that question. I didn’t know, except that “soul” seemed to be what I felt inside me, moving unhappily. Hillman presses on it, gently, firmly, in Bright Existence and Death Tractates.

But in spite of this esotericism, she is a poet of the material world. What at some points is ‘soul’ for her, is equally at other points ‘rat’ ‘burger’ ‘glass’ ‘comb’ ‘tanker’ ‘rage’ ‘sex’ ‘owl’. She is a poet of the domesticated world in which enormous immaterial problems still exist (I think of, “We were clerks in a shop at the edge of America;”). At important moments, she is also a poet of the female world, like here: “but before she turns her rage onto the world, the violent / lords must give her the body of a woman which is not easy (“First Thought”). She renames the Western antagonism between body and mind so that it can be renegotiated as ‘bright existence’ / ‘dark existence’, thus displacing a linear conception of being with a more spatial one. The gap between them (the ” / “) she calls the split. The painful place gets filled with ‘matter’, ‘traveler’, ‘recycling’, ‘shoes’, ‘divorce’, ‘California’ (of course) and so on. She has commented that the dashes (“–”) which become more present as she publishes more books, hold sense of process rather than completion. Most of all, most compelling to me, is that she returns her gaze over and over to the desire to feel complete as it jousts with the impossibility of this ever happening (“wanting/the form for which it was created”).

* * * *

In New York, it was my instructor who suggested Hillman’s work to me. When I looked at Death Tractates again, these two years later, I understood much more of it, proving that Doris Lessing was right: sometimes we’re not ready for the things that will speak to us most strongly and must come back to them later.In fact, it became my favorite companion for a while. Hillman’s poems and I went to the coffee shop every morning for the better part of a year. I had decided that the best part of reading poetry, is not so much as Robert Adams has said about photography, trying to make the suffering make sense. I didn’t like the imperialistic ring to that, as though our struggles can be made to accept economic or moral value. No, the best part about reading poetry is in hearing all the sounds, especially the excruciating ones, and the silent ones, so that what has been hidden, twisted, blanked over can have a presence. Presence, mind, not worth. That is much harder to get at. Hillman seems more expert at sidestepping the imperialistic declaration than me. In “Old Ice”, with a rare aphoristic flare, she writes,

Once it seemed the function of poetry
was to redeem our lives.
But it was not. It was to become
indistinguishable from them.

Writing talks to the effort of becoming, which is a continual act.

In my own work, I didn’t want declarations of value. I wanted some frightening evidence of my existence. I needed a lexicon to describe something other than what I was supposed to be– to describe my interiority, perhaps. Obviously, I was not an imperative self, but some other kind—–but what? Even writing this article, it is hard not to adore Hillman, who has given me the key to my own poems, and to talk only of how I relate them to my own process. The kind of presence Hillman’s poems calls up is frightening because it is so loyal to her idiosyncratic self, and so, we’re unprepared for its insight, its language, its terms. And the poems aren’t obscure, in spite of their difficulty. One feels she has a delicately woven logic, tough as sinew, running through the poems, even if the absolute ‘meaning’ of this logic is elusive. Over those morning coffees, as the crumbs of my scone dropped carelessly into the creases of Bright Existence, I could also say that I felt myself existing, in a coffee-shop, in New York while I read them. Even just for ten minutes a day. And that made some difference.

* * * *

Finally, I can tell you in another way what it’s like to read Hillman. Once, I lived alone at the top of an old house in Mount Pleasant, a neighborhood we dubbed Most Unpleasant after its prostitutes and junkies. My neighbors downstairs, were a newly married couple, he a writer, she a gardener. They had painted the house bright yellow, and planted lilacs, lilies, mint — a lush perennial garden– around the front porch. Upstairs in our run-down opulence, I would sit on a stool listening to Bach. In the long, buttery light of sunset that flooded my kitchen, grief and existence sprang strangely from the pages, thirsting to know more, to be more, if that is possible. To be more as though consciousness and a kind of existential (female?) grief could live personified, like love and desire have been personified, in poems. Like my jade plant which turned itself round to get into that strong evening light, Hillman turned around inside the poems to get a good look at where she was standing. And I turned something inside me around so that I could pace the room with Hillman, to try to be with the words as they worked. We made a triple shadow privately revolving to try to see the private view. From December Shadow

Then how to address the place where the soul was not.
Should you have said, standing next to the trench,
this should have been you?

Hillman’s language builds a world that exists entirely simultaneous with what we normally take as real: the world of physical objects, of ideas, errands, struggle, love. Only, Hillman’s world demands not that I read in, but that I read out of it. No coded other side waits for decoding; the coded other side already faces inside out, like a wet dishwashing glove hanging up to dry once duty is done. Its powdery whiteness seems bright and strange after the yellow rubbery stuff, but is just as interesting– interesting, too, to see this regular thing, this poem-washing-up-glove turned right side round and inactive, like a sculpture, like a performance. A new way to see things.

How traitorous I felt, when at last I realized that the other poets’ search for identity bored me. At least, that kind of search bored me. The poets’ technical mastery was unquestionable, impressive. The search for Truth that haunted their poems just didn’t move me as much as I had hoped; it stacked up like dirty dishes that could be cleaned, but refused to sparkle. Or else they couldn’t adequately talk of the gnawing hunger of their users.

Moreover, and more troubling, was that this kind of lyric seemed to wait for me, too, like a nasty troll, every time I felt anxious about my own writing. In fact, I had come to the writer’s festival to find a way around this little monster. The troll commanded me to reveal the Truth, in straight, ‘simple’ narrative poems and quit fooling around with my language trickery. An aphoristic last couple of lines wouldn’t hurt, it said. When I wrote that kind of poem, I could pass as a poet.But I kept failing this test. That the truths and identities we search for do not necessarily reside in one stable reality, seems apparent today. At 25, however, when I’d sit in my kitchen at a loss to describe my feeling of not quite being on the earth, I had forgotten that.

On a blistering, blustery afternoon, in the fall of 1996, from the stage where later Philip Levine would read the funny poems of working class life, Hillman chose to read “Male Nipples,” a poem in a series of connected fragments. Each hangs on the page between two dots, one above, one below, that mark it off from other fragments in the poem. There’s a lot of white space; not much to prompt the fragment into familiarity: here’s one of them:

convinced him to take only
his shirt off. They were, well, one
was brown and one was like the inside of a story–

In, what she’s called, a ‘slightly whiney middle-American female voice,’ she began her reading by admitting the poem’s difficulty and she did not retract its difficulty, even in her tone. She then read it conversationally. The poem –logic, image, and emotion– worked– transparently, like a fairy tale. That, too, seemed bold and mysterious.