One Poem: Order


Let’s deal with the brilliant forsythia
and the strangle of lilacs

that beside the train tracks bloom
and burn, yellow, mauve, erratic, effusive,

firing flames beside the train’s upstate roar
even as it shrieks by at no matter what speed

tell these seasons they can’t go on like this—
oh just a glimpse of the sparkling Hudson

before the train fires on
is not enough! Endless river,

always passing, blooms yearly dying:
give us more order—

or less.
From the train I spot

a man on a Hudson river barge,
who waves to me with a big smile

and I wave back.

From behind windows so darkly tinted
he may not see me

waving anyway, waving and waving—

Up Close and Personal: On Being a Writer’s Assistant, by Anya Kamenetz


In the idle dreams of budding writers, one very popular motif is that of serving at the right hand of a Great Author. There you are, sipping coffee in her sun-dappled kitchen, trading bons mots as you garden together. You become her indispensable sounding board; she begs to see your work; she introduces you to her agent. And lo! The torch is passed.

For me, an aspiring narrative journalist just out of college, it really was a dream come true when The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean offered me a job as her part-time assistant. She paid me very generously for a few hours a week of research, clerical and personal-assisting duties. I tagged along to The New Yorker’s offices and lingered in her beautiful Riverside Drive apartment, watching a writer at work. That was the year Adaptation, the super-meta Charlie Kaufman film version of her great nonfiction novel The Orchid Thief, came out, and Orlean graciously invited me to a special preview screening at the high-rise Sony Building. It was around Christmas, and as I rode home in a taxi—a rare indulgence at the time—past the blazingly lit shops on Madison Ave., I felt I had glimpsed a glamorous world that would soon be mine. 

Without clear career tracks outside academia, writers have always needed both financial and moral support from their more established counterparts. Think of Samuel Beckett as a student in Paris, reading to an aged James Joyce. Today, if anything, the economic necessity is even more pressing. MFA and journalism programs are more crowded than ever, yet paying opportunities anywhere near the field are scarcer. Gone are the days when a writer could live the bohemian life in the East Village for months on one book review. As little magazines give way to blogs, university instructors become underpaid adjuncts, and entry-level jobs in newsrooms and at mainstream magazines are outnumbered by unpaid internships, private assistantships are left as an increasingly important option for both paying bills and paying dues.

Usually, assistants work part-time as a combination of researcher, admin and gofer, and earn between $10 and $20 an hour. At the superstar level, personal assistants may be underwritten by the writer’s magazine or lecture bureau, meaning a more lucrative, salaried, full-time position. But normally the arrangement is informal, for better or worse.

Most writers’ assistants see the job at first as a much-needed way to make ends meet. Only gradually do they realize the mentorship possibilities. “My goal going into the job was simply to make some extra money,” says Tara Bracco, a performance poet who worked part time for Fear of Flying author Erica Jong. “I was trying to figure out how to do something I care about and still be able to pay my rent in New York.”

Joelle Hann, a poet and editor for Bedford/St. Martin’s Press who worked for the poet Galway Kinnell in 1999, while she was at New York University, says that while working with him she felt that she was in the presence of “some other being.” More practically, she also points out, “He paid $15 an hour, which was very helpful, because on-campus jobs only paid $7.50.”

Getting these jobs is a matter of luck. The more famous the author, the more likely they get unsolicited applications, and many top-tier novelists and journalists prefer to work alone. In my case, Orlean happened to be visiting Yale when I was a junior, and I had the chutzpah to buttonhole her after her speech. Most assistant hopefuls I spoke with found their jobs by chance, word of mouth or the occasional Craigslist posting.

Chemistry is important, too. Emily Gordon is the managing editor of Print magazine and the editor of emdashes, a blog about The New Yorker magazine. In 2000, she hit it off with former New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum while interviewing him for Newsday. “We were sitting, drinking wine, having a great time and my tape recorder ran out of batteries and he went to get more. At some point he mentioned that he was hopelessly disorganized and needed an assistant,” Gordon says.

Jed Lipinski, a freelance writer, started out as an intern at McSweeney’s, and last year scored a part-time job with Sean Wilsey, the magazine’s senior editor and author of the confessional memoir Oh the Glory of It All. “We hit it off right away,” Lipinski says. “We both skateboarded as kids. We’re both skinny. He’d been expelled from St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts and so were a bunch of my friends.”

In New York, both Columbia University’s MFA and the new Hunter College MFA programs have formalized these positions with the Hertog Fellowship, which pairs a handful of students with writers like Nathan Englander (author of The Ministry of Special Cases) for a semester of research. 
It’s an apprenticeship with designated hours for both research and mentoring, says Patricia O’Toole, director of the Hertog program at Columbia, which pays a $4,000 tuition credit. “Many develop a relationship that continues far beyond the semester,” she says. “They get to see in a very up-close way how an author thinks about writing a book.”

These associations with authors rarely lead in a straight line to publication. Nevertheless, many assistants stay on the literary path one way or another, and many credit their time as assistants with showing them the way. Bracco says her stint working for Jong at 22 shaped her into the feminist performance poet she is today at 32. “Erica was the first published writer I had ever met, which was just a whole other world for me,” Bracco says. “It was very empowering for me at that age to realize that people could make a living as a writer.”

Part of the excitement of an assisting job is just the proximity to greatness: chatting up Joyce Maynard; being mistaken for Dave Eggers on the phone. Yet being so close to success can also take the bloom off, or feed insecurities that are always so close to the surface for aspiring writers. Personally, I grew up with the not-unusual dream of being a staff writer for The New Yorker. Seeing the job up close, while coming really no nearer to it myself, was bittersweet.

“I wouldn’t say I looked at it and I was like, I want to hit it big someday,” says one assistant to a bestselling author. “You see the extent to which it takes over your life. If she was away from the computer she would call me and say, check the Amazon ranking, check the Audiobook ranking. She’d get off a six-hour flight and call me from the airport and be like, ‘OK, what’s the status?’ This is something that having a huge success does to you. I don’t think writers of small books do that.”

Caitlin McDonnell, now a poet and writing adjunct at several colleges, got intimations of another downside of fame when she worked for the novelist E.L. Doctorow. “He asked me to create an account for him on Amazon, and I chose the password ‘Ragtime,’ the title of his most famous novel,” she says. “He was staring at me blankly for a minute, and then says, ‘what if Beethoven was only remembered for the 5th symphony?’ ”

Sometimes, instead of becoming a role model or alter ego, the boss-writer is just pure ego. An infamous feature in the satirical magazine Spy back in 1989 chronicled the travails of 300 “Vedettes,” assistants to the former The New Yorkerwriter Ved Mehta. The blind memoirist supposedly asked one of them if she was menstruating, based on smell.


One 23-year-old journalist thought she’d found a “great piece of good luck” when a well-known feminist writer saw a piece she’d published in an alternative paper, called her up and invited her to be her research assistant. “I was just about to move to New York and I really needed a job,” she says. But not this job.

“It was a horrible experience in every way, no nuance or subtlety to it,” she says. Working overtime for $200 a week, the writers’ assistants were subject to comments like, “Do you have a learning disability or something?” The young journalist quit after two weeks to seek a step up to minimum wage.

No matter which harried genius you work for, some assistants’ duties are universal. I had one, somewhat disastrous, weekend of dog sitting. Gordon helped Rosenbaum declutter his apartment, negotiate e-mail and tend to Stumpy, his aged cat. “If you were Ron’s assistant, you were Stumpy’s assistant too,” she says. “I don’t think I could have done the work if Stumpy hadn’t liked me.”

Other tasks are more specific to the author’s world. Wilsey once asked Lipinski to download all of the songs mentioned in Haruki Murakami’s novels. “Luckily, he forgot about that one,” Lipinski says. Even more idiosyncratically, Lipinski edited hours of the author’s childhood home videos into a highlights reel for a talk show appearance and spent weeks transcribing his teenage journals, which ran to hundreds of pages. Through the immersion, Lipinski achieved a kind of mind meld with Wilsey. “I’d see him and just want to hug him or talk with him for eight hours about what it’s like to be a guy. I started writing journals about his journals. I thought I was Sean Wilsey for a day.”


Mentoring is always a delicate relationship to negotiate, never more so than with work as fiercely private and internal as writing. What’s remarkable to me is the generosity so many assistants testified to, the same that I experienced myself. Throughout the year that I worked for Orlean and afterwards, she was unhesitating in providing me with introductions, advice, encouragement and, most important, the feeling that she valued my opinion.

When Doctorow was looking for an assistant in the late 1990s, he specifically asked someone at the MFA program at NYU to find him a poet, Caitlin McDonnell says. “He didn’t want a fiction writer who was going to be asking him to read their work all the time.” Nevertheless, after he hired McDonnell, their friendship grew to the point that he eventually asked to see McDonnell’s memoir-in-progress. “I think in the end he was mad that I hadn’t asked him to look at it,” she says.

Doctorow advised her on rewrites, in a long, thoughtful letter, and introduced McDonnell to his editor, who also gave her a careful read and advised McDonnell to put aside the book for a few years. She’s working on the memoir now, 10 years later. “He was really sweet to me,” she says. “Even in the way he read the manuscript, he was being fatherly. It was a book about being lost and trying to grow up and he read it that way.”

As Ezra Pound says, “The study of literature is hero-worship,” and at its best moments, an assistant’s life brings with it feelings of inspiration, not inadequacy. “There are these people who exist out in the ether, whose names are on these books you love, and next thing you know you’re sitting in their kitchen, having coffee, talking about the things you’re scribbling on alone in your apartment,” says Sara Nelson, a Hunter College MFA student who spent a semester as a Hertog fellow working for Kathryn Harrison. “You see that they have their own struggles with their own work—that the struggles are part of the process.”

Five Poems: Progress, All in a Row, Wasp, Day after Day, Meteorologist



Since the highrises and the fancy dock 
went in, Byzantium looks like Florida 
or the coast of Spain—

working people on holiday 
with palm fronds and sickly drinks.

A lot of concrete.

After three hours on the beach,
carrying a small volume of Yeats,
I don’t care for exposed flesh anymore.

I just want my little flask
and to never take off my sunglasses.
It’s not pleasant to expose myself 
whenever I want to.

I want lapus lazuli and priests,
birds of prayer and gold leaf. 
I want Isaiah and the fervor
of Greek or Russian Orthodox, 
stone walls, exclusion and mystery.

I apply zinc to my nose and slowly get drunk.
Tide is out.
No sailing tonight.
No Byzantium.

All in a Row

I adopt two cows
and like a dilletante walk them to slaughter.

Buildings made of hay bales:
Manhattan a farm.

All in a row,
everyone’s cows.

Mine wait brainlessly,
don’t try to escape.
                      They hang their heads low:
bovine depression.


I’d been drinking
in the kitchen.

A wasp on the landing looked lost,
its nose pressed
to the painted wood.

Its wings hummed along
to a private philosophical problem 
or maybe it was waiting out an exit.

My foot in the expert’s shoe
squared off above it
cracked down
killed it. 
                         A kind 
death, I thought, 
no delusions 
no rage.
No one got hurt.

Day After Day

Miserable still, though different, 
the morning sun rose into sight.

Inside the hospital I was recovering
from a dailiness quite severe 
something lost somewhere
or too much of me all around 
or not enough.

Like medical Houdinis, the doctors
looked down, smirks
sealed into their sympathy

"If we asked you,
could you talk about this 
more directly?"


             "Could you write it
in these margins? 
Is it rhythmic?"

            "Does it have sound?"

it has
repeating sounds, flashes and strikes.

             "It has two parts then, 
the facts and the flow; 
numbers and voices.
Would you like to make a recording?"


I’d like to make amythyst


I'm getting my PhD in clouds

                   I don't care
the way she did
hanging her desires
on knitting needles
                 knit one   pearl one   cast one off

           Preserving her virginity
in a glass box

            I smash my box with a fire ax

So lock me up

                      I'm silver, I'm rain, I'm gone

Ten Poems, Read Aloud

AS PUBLISHED IN THE PENN Sound Center: Radio Poetique Archive

PENN Sound is a project of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvannia (UPENN). The project was launched in 2005 by poet and professor Charles Bernstein, along with Dr. Al Filreis, director of the center, to preserve the writing and performances of poets and to encourage new work. The Radio Poetique archive hosts recordings of poets who appeared on the Brooklyn-based poetry radio show, Radio Poetique, from 2003 - 2007.

A Picture of You



Getting to the Whale

The Spell

A Diary and Two Letters: Day After Day


Busy Isolation

By the Highway on Foot

Arctic Circle; Meteorologist

One Poem: Animals


One by one the animals disappeared
either shot or destroying each other
or owned by banks or the military,
the short dog, the eagle mean
and not giving over,
the terrible melancholic deer.

I admired their efforts in the face of apocalypse
and so lined up my inner animals
in a similar formation:
the happy stupid one, the cheater,
the practicing intellectual,
the yogini, the softball champion—

They looked pretty good together,
a nice cross-section of society
so I fixed myself a scotch
and smoked cigars Washington-style
and laughed from deep under my pubic bones
where my phantom penis nervously waited.

Once gathered this way
they acted like union officials
out back on their breaks
cigarettes burning
in solidarity with the sunset: one by one
they raised their hands over their hearts—

I grew up with animals, you know.

I always needed to rescue something.
I never liked lace
the troubling gaps masquerading as completions,
and I never liked spring branches,
that dripped with rain
then became dry—

There must be order.
Fold clothes neatly
and put them in drawers.
Use make-up, mow the lawn.
Eat right.
The body gracious as a butler—

As if nothing had happened
someone put out her cigarette
and sad as a Chihuahua
said, "Heavy rustling of needles. Uplifted branches—
their shapes offer them up
but then they struggle against their shape—"

—no one speaks like that

I turned away.
When I looked back
she was gone
like the animals. No!
"When I looked back she was laughing,"

Yes, like that,
as though she actually
saw something in the trees
like a sign fortune tellers had posted
giving up their charade:
be prepared for no answer

or maybe,
be prepared for I.V.s and a crowd in the ward
an approximation
of a conclusion— a body’s knowledge here and there
then changed into
anything else—

One Poem: Favorite Restaurant


you keep trying to get it right


tonight’s menu on the placemate again

a sweat-crusted "what?"
he’s just happy to see you—

Jean’s spelled an S.O.S. in white tape
in her loft windows
two letters short of a message

He runs his hand down your back
such a huge prize
you order a hamburger,
Moon separated from Jean’s building
electricity separated from her air conditioner
both joined

in a relationship of absence—

Real estate over love

real estate


Loneliness lives

in the mind. Real estate

lives around the body

you chose loneliness

over interrupting love

more poets commit suicide than painters

does this make them less__________ or more _____________?

He would ride naked on a horse

dance samba with brooms

still you look on blankly

it kills you,


Jean paints with the power cut,

he loves you though you sidestep

though you come back to this place

again and again

trying to get it right

its moon and the message

written very nearly

clearly before you—

Bodega: a Sestina


Shit! Out of milk again. The bodega
downstairs is no good, forget it, sells only beer
chips, canned beans, pickled pimento, and smokes
their milk’s always expired, the guy just shrugs
when I ask him how comebrown toothed smile, nods
uh-uh, sure-sure his go-home dumb-ass mumble.

I’ve done that twice I won’t again mumble
cocksucker, how hard is it for bodegas
to sell unexpired milk? Boozers nod
and wink inside and on the street with beers
men in Cuban hats, bottle caps, and shrugs
and wide sweeps of hey! arms wide, fat smokes

what do they talk about all day? Light smokes
at nine a.m. or maybe ten whenever the mumbler
stumbles in to open shop. They smoke, they shrug
hello or turn away, say “fucking car,” bodega
of eternal comment, sponsored by Bud beer
come afternoon they’re slouched in sleepy nods,

but still they know who comes and goes. They nod
sly-eyed, if they like you they’ll give you smokes
or fix your bike, warn you about the milk, suggest beer,
give you a gracious pass at the door, mumble
salut! the end-all cheer of the bodega
when you’re gone forget you with a shrug

eh, whitey. Always wants something. Shrug
off to the back room, pool table, thick with nods,
good shot, cheater! asshole, conyo, bodega
men. In summer, their women come with their smokes,
pull lawn chairs under the one tree, mumble
uh-uh, no way, play salsa, goddamn it, more beer!

shout, shout, eh conyos! turn the music up! more beer!
You know what? Forget the milk I’ll just shrug
if off, coffee’s black, I’ll buy juice, mumble
my thanks, pass the women in their shady chairs, nod
at their young babies, every one of them has smokes
that’s the way it is downstairs, that’s our bodega

where the men crack beers before noon and nod
uh-huh, yeah, damned fucking car, shrug off and smoke,
turn on the transistor, mumble, eh, si, no, eh, shit, okay: bodega.

One Poem: Small Gestures


Mosquito larvae "may be the leading impediment to economic growth in the developing world."—New York Times, July, 2000.


It begins with small understandings,
then rises to the size of Ganesh's phallus.

You are at a dim cafe. Lightning splits the sky.
You are eating spiced olives with someone you desire.
The door is open but she doesn't love you.
A white streak burns into your retinas.
The taste of cumin and paprika salt you with a shriveled pain,
you have bought it and you must pay.

ii) The Mosquito

It begins with a billow of evolutionary hubris,
then sweeps the body with encephalitic fevers.

Larvae hatching in old tires
don't threaten anyone
busy behind their screens.

But she's a democratic insect and she insists;
she sips blood in
to gestate her young,

for this gift she repays in flames
shooting in yellow fever, malaria,
a vast swelling, transnational,
the sting and buzz of generous disease.

The democratic insect. Fair exchange.

iii) Mayan Scribes: the Red Murals

It began with a talent for figures, gestures,
then grew into civil war.

In victory, the Mayan scribes were drunk with their King,

wrapped in long scrolls of their work
and rolling around the palace.

In defeat their fingers were ritually broken
in front of their enemies,
their genitals gashed
and their fingernails torn out.

In the Mayan dictionary "fingernails" means lament:

"I have no fingernails; I am no longer the person I used to be.
I no longer have power or authority
or money. I am no one."


It begins with simple gestures,
then swells to the size of Nietzche's madness.

The mosquito either infects
or it doesn't.

The scribes are either drunk
or they are dead.

She either loves you
or she is lightning.

There is great thirst, even as the bloom is on the larvae.

Three Poems: Panic and Work, Gutting Trout, Silence


Panic and Work

Buicks and Chevys stand parked
in the Goodyear factory parking lot
though their restless atoms whiz;

the bushes don’t care, snagged
as they are on junk-- rotting insulation 
like awkward bolts of flesh;

hobos pace the fence 
between the railway tracks and the trucks,
walking in the leaves’ mulch and their
smell --

inside the factory, punchcards hold on a moment
in the teeth of the machine
in sexual noise, a joy;

but flustered by mental nonsense 
one machinist drove home at high speed
with the Maritime salt-marshes calling in gibberish,
wanting to veer into the snowbank on either side of the road
and hide under his bed.

His work ethic offered no comfort:

no one inside the factory would accept
"Buicks parked at senseless angles"
for signs of ‘team spirit’;

nor would the parking lot
contain his obvious struggle--
neatly parked in their defining spaces
Buicks and Chevys stand row on row.

gutting trout author joelle hann.gif

Gutting Trout

Roughly the flesh resists
then the head pops open
a silver-red rose forced to flower.

I’m glad you are dead.
Your deflated fins lay against my palm
like a hushed-up baby;
each of your speckles
once part of the black and yellow lake
flash like codes.

Killing was like a game, but it wasn’t.
The bolted handle of the knife
clubbed you dead. I used to watch his expert hands.
I learned to kill 
by splitting myself in two-- 
one shrieking, as the blade 
shrank into the skin,
the other standing back in a smirk--

Your filmy lake-water back
slaps the sink,
my father’s knife seems to know you.
              --here’s the white bucket for your innards
              the silver tap to flush you out.

"Intestine," my mother says. "Digestion. Waste." 
I scratch your black intestine with my thumbnail
'til each vertebrae is articulate.

Then I open you 
without disgust, adult-like:
lost are all the organs that propelled you towards me; 
I relate to you perfectly. Your scoured inside
is my ideal self, gutted and clean

no mess in my all-reflecting eyes.


Let there be silence in the overmind,
exhaust the stigmas, the busy enigma 
of being, as it's silenced
In the closed handwriting of some mad women.

Others may mark their way like dogs,
trickling piss from their excited hearts 
over city shrubs and parking meters.

Q: How does a life unfold? 
A: Each day without a security guard.

Initial life questions hit across the throat 
and give birth to more questions.

(As I write this, wasps crawl in and out of the light socket
so above me is the sound of struggle.)

To prevent more questions I've transferred my life
into photographs. I look like a medium-brown woman (summer)
with drooping eyes. (She of all people looks like she is posing.)

But it isn't summer yet it is spring (I'm rushing)
lilacs on my desk perfume with a mauve flourish
like little groups of microphones
that would not be photographed.

The trees in the photos of the trees
seemed farther away than when I saw them out the window.
I miss them, turned back
to a living wild and without me.

Q: why me?
A: no particular reason

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.