THE ONLY CONSTANT IS
THE PAGE NUMBER: BRENDA HILLMAN'S
Hillmanâs realized notion of Cascadia, too
expansive to be
in any individual poem, yet present in all of them, makes
a breakthrough volume for her.
None of the poems in Brenda
Hillmanâs sixth volume
of poetry, Cascadia, is likely to end up on anyoneâs
theyâre too busy working for a greater good.
Hillmanâs realized notion
of Cascadia, too expansive to be contained in any individual
yet present in all of them, makes this a breakthrough volume for
This conforms to a quotation from Hillman's own literary criticism:
complete fragment nor complete discontinuity is accurate. Only
are accurate." (Spahr Review, p2.). Her poetry is not
obscure. However, given the scope of the greater work, individual
poems are not necessarily easy to comprehend on a first reading.
Cascadia starts with three
which give some insight into the breadth of her poetics:
The poetâs destiny is to expose himself to the force
of the undetermined and to the pure violence of being
from which nothing can be made·but also to contain
it by imposing upon it restraint and the perfection of forms.
Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature
Lâespace dâor ridé où jâai
passé le temps
(The space of wrinkled gold where I passed the time)
Pierre Reverdy, "Clear Winter"
(translation by John Ashbery)
"But where is the science in all of this, Mulder?
Youâre talking alchemy here."
The X-files (Cascadia, 1)
The first epigraph immediately
places the work
in a post-modern, non-linear vein. The juxtaposition of violence
and restraint provides a context for Hillman to bring geologic faults
the world of drug addiction in "A Geology," . . . "When an addict tries
to leave / the desire to make himself over shifts from / what it felt
to have been a subject; // L.A. will dwell beside San Francisco
"(enter: the 'we'---)"
centered in the middle of the page. Ah, perhaps this is a comment
that we will leave the more ethereal content of the first two poems and
allow humans join the fray.
The second epigraph is critical to
Hillmanâs authorial voice. The consciousness of her poems, like
seems to come from a position off-center to our culture. It makes
room for such lines as "A skin between a day and a day is / Moths
along" (Cascadia, 67).
The third epigraph, touching on pop culture,
reminds us that while Hillmanâs poems are grounded not only in
and geologic time, they are also in the reality of daily
The word "alchemy" seems just right, Hillmanâs true field.
to change lead into gold, and her poems, such as "A Geology" sometimes
The only constant on the pages of Cascadia
is the page number. The typography of each page
is continually surprising. Hillmanâs poems are nothing if
÷ her authorial voice is always shaking things up. The
"Sediments of Santa Monica," with its opening lines ÷ "A left
the sea floor approach // It takes 30 million years" (Cascadia,
3) ÷ is conventionally formatted, except for a few extra spaces
The second, "El Niño Orgonon," that ends on page five, is
formatted except that it is right-justified. It concludes,
you / feel everything, finally? Weather taught / you to write
When it stops / being wrecked, weâll write
When we turn to page six, we encounter
Page seven brings us to "A
This seven-page poem is framed by four of the words of the poem on each
page. For example, the top margins contain the words,"range" and
"condition" in the corners. The page ends with
us to scare. Where
Berkeley is, once a shallow sea with
Landforms to the west, called Cascadia.
No kidding, I read this.
A geology breaks in half to grow. A person whose drug like
a locust jumps across someoneâs foot, singing÷;
we disagree with D, who hates similes. (Cascadia, 7)
and the words "locust" and "disagree" in the bottom
The last page of this poem contains the word "fault" in three of the
and "prevalent" in the lower right-hand corner. This is a good
of how Hillman sets expectations, often to break them.
The poem ends:
not a strategy. When an addict tries to leave
the desire to make himself over shifts from
what it felt like to have been a subject;
beside San Francisco eventually.
Tempting to pun
on the word fault. All right,
say plot. All right, happens. The
to fault relieves the strain. New islands
were forming to get the gist of it.
better not to have been held by something.
The oldest limestone, prevalent between Big Sur
and Calaveras, is not "better than," say,
any other kind. The suffering wasnât luckier,
it was a question of asking.
hour, the difference of not recovering
from the difference of what we loved;
sameness is also true: stone like a spider
sucking the carapace
the same color as itself.
of nature, we are required to
experience the dramatic narrative of matter.
California are reigning in their little world.
down in strata so you could know
What it felt like to have been earth.
Although it is not her predilection
weights each stanza ÷ even line ÷ evenly), for me this
poem is transformed
by its final couplet. It summarizes Brenda Hillmanâs
in which things viewed with an understanding eye are meant to be.
If they were not meant to be they would not have happened. This
separate her from the language poets. While Iâm no expert
poetry, I believe that part of the philosophical explanation for that
of work revolves around the notion that causality is forced; that is,
ordered sentences imply an ordered world. If I am correct in
then Hillman, while influenced by language poets, is not a language
"Hydraulic Mining Survey" (Cascadia,
1), has interesting typology: the middle three stanzas are
to the other text, as they might be in a hydraulic machine. This
is the first of many poems that honor Californiaâs gold rush
The longest of these, "The Shirley Poem," includes snippets of letters
written from the California gold mines by "Dame Shirley," (Louise A. K.
S. Clapper), (Cascadia, 77). Iâll quote from the
It was a common
miners to bury their money (Re-bury?)
fall in love
we deem to be good. (deem
is a kind of Shirley word).
The world thinks earth is good,
and gold is the best earth
(still trying to understand money).
them panning through gravel
in valleys of seasonal influence on
the East Branch of the North
Fork of the Feather River, contenting
herself with a philosophy of fortitude,
waiting, making bookcases from candle crates,
reading Coleridge, "who is never old."
hanging of a thief
÷"would around his green-leafed gallows"
÷"a harmless, quiet, inoffensive person"
(hoping heâs not guilty so heâll
feel less bad at being hanged).
Outside the Oroville
motel, a transubstantial
turning: grackles like computers starting up
in earth, the crystals stuffed with
water which makes moltenness unlikely.
is almost like death
to mount to my favorite spot."
The change in
a womanâs body
is the change in a california. . . .
Weâre fairly sure which words
and which are Brendaâs, although Iâm not too sure of "still
trying to understand
money." Thereâs a slight possibility they were taken from
This same ambiguity (or, more precisely,
about voice continues in many of the later poems of the volume,
those, starting with "Patterns of Pain in Certain Small Missions" (Cascadia,
61), that have the names of Californian Monks beneath each poem, and
ranging from 1771 through 1817. These poems are often surrounded
on the page by typographic marks. Iâll quote one of them in
MOTHS WALKING ALONG
+ After a million years
+ Paused till it seemed
A skin between a day
and a day is
+ Moths walking along
+ A pointy lurch when it
Wednesday from forever
In the same
manner the literal
any place if you turn it sideways
+ As they fit the cross through
+ (A cross is a kiss
+ Others work in the
+ Whole panamas of water
Not to be
lost in the
Or consolidate the
That dread or delight
mixture once assured
This is typical of the care taken
poems. At first glance, both the arrows across the top and the
down the margin seem decorative, almost random. And, while they
on a decorative level, more importantly they significantly enhance the
meaning of the poem. The couplet at lines six and seven amplifies
the line across the poem, and the parenthetical line re-defines all the
plus-signs and the Xs.
A central question of this poem is "to whom
is the poem addressed ÷ who is the Îyouâ?" A
might be that the "you" is God. What else after a million years
take a breath, and to whom else could the poet speak so knowingly of
crosses through slatted doors?
Readers of this volume are afforded a
We are given the opportunity to travel with Hillman through geologic
with its faults, through the gold rush days, back to the series of
each a dayâs horseback ride away from the other. On the
experience Brenda Hillmanâs authorial voice in full bloom, and in
her solid vision of Cascadia.
Hillman, Brenda. "Engergizing the Reading Process:
New Nest," in How2, edited by Kathleen Fraser, vol. 1, No. 3,
2000; article available on the internet at
Hillman, Brenda. Cascadia. Wesleyan University
Connecticut, 2001. ISBN: 0-81-956492-3 $12.06
© by Kevin Arnold