This article was written on 21 Aug 2014, and is filled under Literature.

Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire


I love this book so I want to explore the grounds of my pleasures. What is the volume’s power to modify our understanding and develop a distinctive sensibility, and why does it produce a fresh vision of lyric’s place in our decidedly anti-lyrical world? These questions lead me to the possible implications of what I consider the volume’s most striking and yet also most characteristic statement—“Use your imagination, my mother used to say, meaning, you don’t have to use it, you are in it” (67).

It is no accident that it is the mother who makes this observation. It takes intense care for particulars even to recognize that there is a significant difference between believing one has to use one’s imagination and believing that one is already in imagination, so one can trust that living well and imagining well occupy the same plane. Perhaps when poets think they must use the imagination they are also likely to accept a host of classical and high modernist ideals about poetry that Hillman wants to escape or at least to finesse.

A commitment to using the imagination risks invoking a deadly seriousness as one contemplates from the outside what one has wrought: so it had better have a “meaning” with integrity and depth of its own. Being in imagination affords quite different dispensations. It suggests a freedom to speculate playfully and assume a transparency between self and other not possible when imagining is projected as a mode of labor. This freedom—the dominant existential and writerly trait in this book—opens the lyrics to celebrating the immediate pleasure and focus afforded by the intensities of fire (1): lightening and lightning may have more in common than we usually credit. Freed from the pressure to make meaning, poets might revel in the various modes of meaningfulness that seem inherent in imagination—for example, a spirit of play, an emphasis on the connection between feeling and fact, the elaboration of hypotheticals, dwelling on an ever-present sense of relatedness among what might seem isolated particulars and, above all for Hillman, a faith that a focus on conversation (with what seems active in things as well as in persons) will foster our fullest capacities for agency. Seasonal Works celebrates poetry as a mode of sheer delight in the kinds of being that are committed to finding pleasure and freedom and connection as elementary conditions of being in the world. As for seriousness, our machines can do that for us.

One poem in particular stands out as an emblem for how Hillman re-imagines the lyric by absorbing what we might call the intimacies of domestic space into religious figures of prayer and devotion. I think “Light Galaxies Sleep for Our Mother” is one of the great elegies and expressions of feminist values in American poetry:

	between  work & human         	 her style of love
	will boycott time            for children
	asked for change         for March of Dimes
	feeds the wild		  her kindness
	brain of a lily          aspirin in the water
	one aspirin                 like the sun
	put plastic	         on the guest bed mattress
	fixing radios              first hand
	luminous names		    visit our mother
	the state worn		      	gravity garments
	need fixing              gravity declines
	luminous names		    beyond dust
	abide with us	                o mother abide
	beyond work	         letters & days
	universe	          you second hand
	wedding dress		     infinity cloth
	cover her	         when she sleeps
	when she rests             at night let us
	not let her not	               forget us
	when she closes			 both her eyes.  (103)

The structure here evokes the work of the mother’s two eyes, constantly watching as each fosters a domain of constant care. But the full resonance of the poem turns on its last lines, since the final reference to two eyes both interprets the structure and expands the poem to a mythical level embedded in concrete attention. And, even more important, these last lines define in utter simplicity the enormous difference death makes. They provide a beautiful transition from mother to daughter, whose eyes at night are now focused on covering her and worrying how there might be a path by which to “not let her not       forget us.” As this shift takes place, we also realize that what seems an elegy is also a prayer and a hymn of something like thanksgiving, all because the poem contours so closely what can embody a life of caring within the purview of living in the imagination.

But living in imagination also has other facets that encompass a range of epistemological and axiological parameters—all predicated on the powers of the eye to establish possibilities for being “I” without constructing social meanings for that “I” that then have to be defended. For Hillman there is an alternative model of sociality that stems from attending to the destructive and creative fire that simply burns through righteous ideas to concrete objects that elicit our caring. Sociality in her poetry arises from her radical, eco-centric view. It is the result of being aware that what we love and what engages us in the world will be lost if we fail to find alternatives to what that world is becoming.

This sense of the animated eye leading to the appreciation of relationships is fundamental to Hillman’s version of eco-poetics and, consequently, to her understanding of one model of the poet’s work as giving letters a breath (and breadth) that allows them “not/ to decide as” the work curves “between/ skin-bearer & the being said” (63). For the meaningful escapes the burden of projecting meaning by preserving a dynamic relation between capturing actual states in the world and displaying the force of the pleasures inherent in that capturing:

	is their Caliban, a search 
	  removed from history.  Phenomena
	 request your attention: out the window:
		an ecstasy of now--  (88)

I could go on at length about how these poems not only assert this “ecstasy of now,” but also construct it as a condition of attentive reading and a locus of responsibility in the world. But in my limited space I have to go directly to the second-order aspect of this construction and this resistance to “hidden meaning” (36): her exploration of the possibilities that this work can significantly modify our understanding of lyric by presenting the poet with different ways of regarding the role of rhetoric—which is to say, her self-consciousness about the relation between attention and making. Here I need an abstract model in order to define how I value certain aspects of Hillman’s commitment to concreteness. So I will discuss her opening poem, “To Spirits of Fire After Harvest”:

Between earth
& its noun, i felt a fire …

--What does it mean by “i” Mrs?
--it means (and i quote): one
    Of the vowels in the brain
	     & some of the you’s--:

we were interested in the type of thing
humans can’t know,
interested in kinds of think animals think
--a rabbit or a skink!  (Eumeces kiltonianus)
	   when autumn brings a grammar,
  wasps circle the dry stalks
  & you can totally 
  See through amber ankles dangling
	   in dazzle under our lord the sun
	   of literature—

Between noon & its noun,
there were ridged
& golden runes on pumpkins … bluish
			gourds—in the fields …
		  (their white eyes lined up
		       Inside)—Wait a sec.  Please
Don’t nail the door shut.  The air is friendly
& non-existent as Victoria’s veil-- …

Earth don’t torment your fool,
your ambassador clown. Bring
the x of oxygen & sex, a fox 
running sideways through present noon— (3)

The most remarkable feature of this poem is its utter fluidity, as if speaking and thinking and thinging all occupied the same plane. And that plane seems to afford a common theater where “I,” “you,” and “we” could rapidly substitute for each other by sharing modes of attention, modes of fear—and ultimately the same prayer with animals for the earth to be bountiful in yielding pleasures that extend from what we can see to what fits our alphabets and so affords meaningfulness. Here the uncapitalized “I” sets the tone. That figure is not a gimmick, especially in the context of the volume’s fascination with the life of alphabetical letters: “i” brings the same kind of pleasure as “x” brings later. The poem searches for an “I” more concerned with its placement in relation to other letters and so other meanings than those that require it as an originating condition. And if the “i” can take on this kind of freedom, it can also accept the many possible tones of speaking that can continuously prove sufficiently flexible to allow “us” to play many parts—­as a dialogical partner and as continuous source of the letters fundamental to making “noon” a continual presence.

Poetry here accepts the roles assigned it by the imagination, content to find itself within playful activity. For there is a close correlation between letting the spirit of play prevail and not nailing the door shut to the friendly air. Earth remains approachable within this spirit of collective play, and there is no need to differentiate prayer from simple pleas for recognition.

Hillman’s interest in what prayer symbolizes will prove a crucial factor here because as the volume progresses, she encounters various forces that do capitalize “I” and lose all that “x” brings, because of defensive and blind activities devoted to protecting the interests of capitalization. It is as if the first section of the volume created a new mode of heroism—the freedom to treat poetry as contoured to a life of articulate pleasure in the world, in the self, and in unguarded openness to others.

Here the value is all in the spirit of light-hearted conjunction making lines like “Between noon and its noun” (3) and “habitat for halibut” (22) so joyous a mode of living. But then the second part of the volume forces that spirit into action in inhospitable situations, testing whether the private virtues of being in imagination can influence the public world’s very different sense of virtue and vice. The basic challenge in poems like “A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility” becomes to cultivate anger while refusing the bitterness that usually accompanies it when history turns against the poet’s values, marshalling forces that are incredibly ignorant of every factor that gives poetry its vital significance. How can the poet be true to what history rejects while having to fight on terms set by history’s winners? Hillman’s answer is to offer no answer. There is only continuing the commitments that produce the range of values represented by these poems:

                                   History wakes us
	    to sort it out with the press
	    of great voices, silent now--; i fear
		bosses will always win. …
	the spirits have abandoned me;
	let me not abandon myself— (90)

This ending risks echoing standard heroic poses that fix identity against the threats it encounters. And I suspect Hillman wants these heroic stances in the background, but well in the background. The focus has to remain on the powers of this lower case I as in fact the locus for the myriad modes of responsiveness that are possible within a life lived in and for the imagination.



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