Karen An-hwei Lee

The latest collection by Brenda Hillman, an exploration of living phenomena and their mysteries, ignites a fiery post-lyric grammar of existence. Hillman’s devotion to social justice—her unwavering belief in poetry’s capacity to address root causes of our political strife—ultimately purifies our fallen world in the languages of elemental fire.

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire is organized in two parts, “I. On the Miracle of Nameless Feeling” and “II. A Sense of the Lively Unit,” wherein the politics and aesthetics of our environment—and the poetics of a spiritual realm—converge in an abecedarian manifesto:

“Ecopoetics Manifesto”

p. 29 “radical intensity, uncertainty, complexity, contradiction” in lettered fragments
vs. anthropocentricism

A — At times a poem might enact qualities brought from Romantic poetry, through Baudelaire, to modernism & beyond—freedom of form, expressivity, & content—taking these to a radical intensity, with uncertainty, complexity, contradiction;

B — such a poem employs knowledge from diverse disciplines—including scientific vocabularies, but it does not privilege only the human. Research includes rural & urban wilds as well as knowledge from all cultures; creative forms bring together earth & spirit, rejecting no sources, including the personal;

C — its energies shuttle across binaries: realism / non-realism, rationality/irrationality, refuting received authority;

D — such a poem like an animal could graze or hunt in its time, exploring each word, carrying symbolic rhythms, syntax & images directly between the dream & the myth; the imagination does not reject the spirit world;

E — then a poem is its own action, performing practical miracles:

  1. “the miracle of language roots”—to return with lexical adventures
  2. “the miracle of perception”—to honor the senses
  3. “the miracle of nameless feeling”—to reflect the weight of the subjective, the contours of emotion
  4. “the miracle of the social world”—to enter into collective bargaining with the political & the social 

F — & through powerless to halt the destruction of bioregions, the poem can be brought away from the computer. The poet can accompany acts of resistance so the planet won’t die of the human.

In a holistic vision fueled by revolutionary love, the lively poems of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire take on capitalist exploitation in global industries (i.e., pharmaceutical) via sister-fires of poetic inspiration and social justice:

 “Geminid Showers & Health Care Reform”
. . .

the planet flew through space junk
while the Health Care Bill was being penned
      with pens from Chantix, pens from Lidoderm
          & Protinix, with pens
from Actos, Lamosil, & Celebrex;

late autumn made a fire in us;
         the cosmos waited for a sign;
the soul was waiting for the mind,
fat chickadees waited for sweet fennel
   [Foeniculum vulgare] & nameless
         asters on side streets where drones
               take violins to the Queen— 
                   what kind of drones?
                    The sounds fly out, for thee—
we slept as many as the anyway
   where meaning met material, that is,
inside the personal,
         that is, for love of earth—

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire draws richly from Greek mythology and Biblical allusions, portraying Americana in the contexts of epic allegory. “Early Sixties Christmas in the West” juxtaposes Persephone and her mother in a Christmas kitchen where “like Demeter, the mother is great at using leftovers, & the daughter finds a skill for bringing fragments from the dead…” Of numerous protest poems, “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump” showcases a pageant of epic conflicts: “…is it like Gilgamesh & Enkidu, David & Absolum, like Isis & Osiris, like Ishmael & history, is it like Hecuba & her kids, Cassandra who did not drive, is it like Mary, like Antigone who could barely lift the body to bury it….”

Tucked amidst the collection’s poems of witness and social action, “A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility” and “Experiments with Poetry Are Taken Outdoors” recount Hillman’s involvement in various demonstrations, including Occupy Cal (Berkeley) where Hillman and her husband, poet Bob Hass, survived assaults by riot police. Tiny photographs grace the poems where Hillman’s friends hold up signs—“ground the drones”—in miniature historical archives of witness:  

“The Body Politic Loses Her Hair”

. . . Words need air, as Proust noted.  You
can give the word drone more
air on a sign as Janet is doing here in Nevada
while a drone flies over. 
You can burn your fallen hair
when a general indicates that some folks are killed so we can all be free. Actually, he didn’t say folks, he said civilians. My hairs are a little too free so they fall.

Hillman’s transparent critiques of global imperialism ring paradoxically true in “A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility,” subversively mirroring Wordsworth’s time-worn adage from Lyrical Ballads.  With candor, she positions wealth-driven corruption vs. the power of human nurture: “Sometimes i am sick of human except for babies, poets & the ones i love.”
Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire embraces uncertainty at the limits of language and displays a splendid range of code-switching in a post-lyric sensibility—overall, the collection mixes the textures of a Middle English Romance in “At the Solstice, A Yellow Fragment” with contemporary straight-talk in “Report on Visiting the District Office,” part of Hillman’s activist project of “taking poems outdoors”:

Who is poetry for?  Truth is, i don’t know. The folks at tailgate parties before
    the game, in their lawn chairs—are they dying every day for lack of what is
   found there?

It’s been proposed that we take poems about offshore oil drilling to Congres-
    sional staff. My district is shaped like a bouncing blue amoeba. Ironic to
    drive 20 miles to protest oil drilling in a dreamily-driving-to-the-subrubs
    depression. Inside the “atrium”—a fountain with ridges—climbing the
     stairs with Janet & taking the poems like contraband across the threshold.
     M the district director sits with us; she tells about bills the Congressman
     will put forth. She is kind & listens carefully while we read to her at a huge
     table. 3 women, 2 poems.

Infused with a shimmering awareness of life, Hillman parses our existence in “Grammar of This Life at Noon” with a wordsmith’s ear: “gnostic Jesus, its comma-comma-comma / claws. Clause — verbless mosquito-egg / daylight . . .," and illuminates playful paranomasia in a social media satire, “Facelessbook:”

My country’s addicted to Facelessbook, it friends them then bombs them or sometimes it bombs then friends. The drones are faceless when they fly over mountains friending the villagers & the queen bee they would friend if they could find her body would also be faceless.

                  huckleberry oak armor-plated wasp gall
                  an eyeless drone    chews   its way out

My appreciation for Seasons Works with Letters on Fire concludes with a snippet of Part I’s title poem, “On the Miracle of Nameless Feeling,” reflecting the timeless qualities of intimacy and universality eloquently suffusing Hillman’s oeuvre:

 “On the Miracle of Nameless Feeling”
. . .
     Their love was nothing, then
  was almost everything.  The named
& the nameless dream with them there— 

Karen An-hwei Lee’s most recent collection is Phyla of Joy from Tupelo Press. Her volume of criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora, appears in the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She holds an MFA from Brown University and a PhD in literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire 
by Brenda Hillman 
Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT 2013 
$22.95 cloth, ISBN: 978-0819574145
108 pp.