V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Brenda Hillman




Hillmanâs realized notion of Cascadia, too expansive to be contained 
in any individual poem, yet present in all of them, makes this 
a breakthrough volume for her.

None of the poems in Brenda Hillmanâs sixth volume of poetry, Cascadia, is likely to end up on anyoneâs refrigerator, theyâre too busy working for a greater good.  Hillmanâs realized notion of Cascadia, too expansive to be contained in any individual poem, yet present in all of them, makes this a breakthrough volume for her.   This conforms to a quotation from Hillman's own literary criticism: "Neither complete fragment nor complete discontinuity is accurate.  Only both are accurate." (Spahr Review, p2.).  Her poetry is not intentionally 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 epigraphs 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 into 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 like to have been a subject; // L.A. will dwell beside San Francisco eventually." (Cascadia, 7) 
     The second epigraph is critical to understanding Hillmanâs authorial voice. The consciousness of her poems, like this quote, 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 walking along" (Cascadia, 67).
     The third epigraph, touching on pop culture, reminds us that while Hillmanâs poems are grounded not only in the stars and geologic time, they are also in the reality of daily experience.  The word "alchemy" seems just right, Hillmanâs true field.  She endeavors to change lead into gold, and her poems, such as "A Geology" sometimes do. 
     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 not inconsistent ÷ her authorial voice is always shaking things up.  The first poem, "Sediments of Santa Monica," with its opening lines ÷ "A left margin watches the sea floor approach // It takes 30 million years" (Cascadia, 3) ÷ is conventionally formatted, except for a few extra spaces and italics.  The second, "El Niño Orgonon," that ends on page five, is conventionally formatted except that it is right-justified.  It concludes, "Didnât you / feel everything, finally?  Weather taught / you to write funny.  When it stops / being wrecked, weâll write normally."    When we turn to page six, we encounter

"(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. 
     Page seven brings us to "A Geology."   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

          Landforms enable 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 corners.   The last page of this poem contains the word "fault" in three of the corners and "prevalent" in the lower right-hand corner.  This is a good example of how Hillman sets expectations, often to break them.
     The poem ends: 

          A geology is 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;

          L.A. will dwell beside San Francisco eventually.

          Tempting to pun on the word fault.  All right, 
                    say plot.  All right, happens.  The tendency 
                    to fault relieves the strain.  New islands 
                    were forming to get the gist of it.

          Whether itâs 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.

          In the instead 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.

          In the expiation of nature, we are required to 
                    experience the dramatic narrative of matter.

          The rocks under California are reigning in their little world.

          This was set down in strata so you could know 
                    What it felt like to have been earth.

     Although it is not her predilection (she often weights each stanza ÷ even line ÷ evenly), for me this poem is transformed by its final couplet.  It summarizes Brenda Hillmanâs authorial world 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 might separate her from the language poets.  While Iâm no expert on language poetry, I believe that part of the philosophical explanation for that body of work revolves around the notion that causality is forced; that is, that ordered sentences imply an ordered world.  If I am correct in this, then Hillman, while influenced by language poets, is not a language poet. 
     "Hydraulic Mining Survey" (Cascadia, 1), has interesting typology: the middle three stanzas are perpendicular to the other text, as they might be in a hydraulic machine.  This is the first of many poems that honor Californiaâs gold rush days.  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 middle of the poem:

          It was a common habit for 
                    miners to bury their money (Re-bury?)

          We fall in love with what 
                    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).

          Shirley watched 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."

          Witnessing the 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.

          (p. 116) "It is almost like death 
                    to mount to my favorite spot."

          The change in a womanâs body 
                    is the change in a california. . . . 
                          (Cascadia, 39-40)

     Weâre fairly sure which words are Shirleyâs and which are Brendaâs, although Iâm not too sure of "still trying to understand money."  Thereâs a slight possibility they were taken from the letters. 
     This same ambiguity (or, more precisely, indeterminability) about voice continues in many of the later poems of the volume, particularly those, starting with "Patterns of Pain in Certain Small Missions" (Cascadia, 61), that have the names of Californian Monks beneath each poem, and dates ranging from 1771 through 1817.  These poems are often surrounded on the page by typographic marks.  Iâll quote one of them in its entirety:

>>>>x>>>>>>x       the future      x<<<<<<x<<<<

                         MOTHS WALKING ALONG

+       After a million years you drew a breath.

+       Paused till it seemed more accurate
         Not to
         A skin between a day and a day is
+       Moths walking along

+       A pointy lurch when it works >>>> to keep
         Wednesday from forever
          In the same manner the literal
          Fits through any place if you turn it sideways
+       As they fit the cross through slatted doors

+       (A cross is a kiss turned sideways)

+       Others work in the garden
          Spraying surround squash blossoms
+      Whole panamas of water

         Not to be lost in the blend
         Or consolidate the rose
         That dread or delight

         Same mixture once assured you

         San Juan Bautista
                   (Cascadia, 67)

     This is typical of the care taken with these poems.  At first glance, both the arrows across the top and the plus-signs down the margin seem decorative, almost random.  And, while they work 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 Christian interpretation might be that the "you" is God.  What else after a million years could take a breath, and to whom else could the poet speak so knowingly of fitting crosses through slatted doors?
     Readers of this volume are afforded a journey.  We are given the opportunity to travel with Hillman through geologic time with its faults, through the gold rush days, back to the series of Missions, each a dayâs horseback ride away from the other.  On the journey we experience Brenda Hillmanâs authorial voice in full bloom, and in the distance her solid vision of Cascadia.

Texts cited:

Hillman, Brenda.  "Engergizing the Reading Process: Juliana Spahrâs New Nest," in How2, edited by Kathleen Fraser, vol. 1, No. 3, February, 2000; article available on the internet at :http://www.scc.rutgers.edu/however/v1_3_2000/current/alerts/hillman.html 

Hillman, Brenda.  Cascadia. Wesleyan University Press: Middleton, Connecticut, 2001.  ISBN: 0-81-956492-3  $12.06

© by Kevin Arnold


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