Readings in Contemporary Poetry

Brenda Hillman

Introduction by Brighde Mullins

Garcia Lorca talks about the desire for a map or a discipline to reveal duende and he describes duende as that which is prodigious in Art, a wound that never heals not a demon, not an angel, but a predicament. Brenda Hillman's poetic predicaments access a duende that animate her poems, poems that are written at a solitary angle, but that are inclusive, are pierced by the world.

This inclusiveness is signalled in one poem that marvels "I wanted to hear just one voice, and heard two--wanted to be just one thing, but I was several." The world pours into her poems, changing their tonal registers-- I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop's "Why should I be one of them?--How, how unlikely--!" this is the revelation that Bishop's hero utters, realizing the implications of having been born as part of this species, and it is this same sense of fresh amazement, this distinctly female sensibility that shuttles between questions of how to be, and what it is to be alive.

Birds are persistent figures, stand-ins for poets in their poems; one thinks of Hopkins' windhover, Hardy's darkling thrush, Keats' nightingale, Dickinson's hummingbird -- Birds are recurrent creatures in Hillman's poems, and they activate sense-memory, are avatars, messengers, representatives:

A redwing blackbird, crimson shoulders
dripping like the Red Cross pins
my father used to get for giving blood
How unlikely, is that comparison, yoking a public creature with a private past, how unlikely, and how perfect--

"You hover at the brink of nonexistence with your soul-destroying love" the poet writes to a schizophrenic girl, and everywhere that Hillman's gaze alights the world is made clearer in its strangeness. There's no reductive normalcy to the world's relentlessly alienating capacities, no clarifying antidote.

She describes one's role in "Amenuensis" which to my mind is a stunning ars poetica. Early in the poem she asks "Always the question, like a rimless wheel, Why was I sent for?" Later, she answers:

hired to write things down for them--
I would begin:  the moth has eyes
on her back and nervous ways
she, too, is Autumn's secretary.
To be Autumn's secretary, late in the day, late in the century, taking notes, stashing up words, is Hillman's role in these intensely perceptual poems.

In DEATH TRACTATES, her book-length elegiac inquiry, the poet uses all of her glittering gifts with a new restraint and with a compelling focus: there is a silence that has opened in her work, and the occasion of the book is the death of a spiritual guide--and so the poet uses her medium, her words, to explore this ultimate strangeness.

These poems occurred to her, she says, "only when/as the present form showed itself to me -- Like a butterfly, opening out on a leaf --" Dickinsonian dashes, interruptions, torsions, breathlessness, speed and silence -- all of the techniques that a poet has at her disposal go into the crafting of this sustained keening, startling in its dramatic disclosures, its unflinching look at loss, as it pushes language through systems of thought and of belief, searching:

In one poem, a mockingbird sings as the poet exclaims:

So many shifts in that bird's style--
Yet, what a pleasure to watch him--
getting drunk on juniper berries
resting lightly on his wing bars--
The necessity of otherness, to write, to be the amenuensis of the visible world, joined with the necessity of inclusiveness, of participation, it is this seeming contradiction, this ecstatic way of being that is precisely where Brenda Hillman begins.