September: and this month I want definitively to forgo those silly reminisces of my youth, or sodden musings on the associative fires of our cover art (though I do love the centrifugal, unbidden order of that beach scene) in favor of a brief announcement. The marvelous, erudite and multi-talented Joseph Campana has agreed to curate our “secret poem” each month for a while. You may recall last month’s newsletter, and his introduction of Frank O’Hara’s “Avenue A”. And not wonder for a moment why I am excited about this development. So, let’s get to it: Joseph’s thoughts on Brenda Hillman’s work await.
Joseph Campana on Brenda Hillman’s “On a Day, In the world”
I’ve loved Brenda Hillman’s poetry ever since I read “Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire” from her debut collection, White Dress. As I re-read the poem this time, I’m listening to Erik Satie’s composition of the same title. Deceptively simple might be a way of describing both. Satie seems sweet and quiet until he isn’t with crescendos and discord and hard-struck keys. Hillman seems, here, equally subtle. Sweetness might be the point of ripening pears, but she won’t let us have them:
Three pears ripen
On the ledge. Weeks pass.
They are a marriage.
The middle one’s the conversation
The other two are having
He is their condition.
The pears “are a marriage” but we don’t have a pair. Three sit on the ledge ripening, which is to say, getting sweeter until they rot. There’s something delicate but not floral about these pairs, the way a sharpened blade is delicate as it pinpoints, reveals, and excises the flesh of discrete particulars: so sharp you don’t feel the cut. And the pears, well, they’re objects of philosophy, not hunger. How do resolve a marriage of three? One is a conversation and the condition of the others. Are we talking about pairs or lovers or imaginary numbers?
The poem’s ending section is even more spectacular and estranging, after the pears become “old women” who refuse to age:
They will not ripen.
In the new world,
Ripeness is nothing.
The poet looks at the world and wonders when to act and when to observe. The final lines tease with Hamlet’s insistence that “ripeness is all.” It wouldn’t be the first or only thing Hamlet got wrong.
Recent years on this planet might convince us there’s a Hamlet in us all, painfully observant and in a constant rage to act when most often it feels hard to figure out what to do. It is every day more apparent, the degradation of the environments we share, most often poorly, with other life forms. The instability of climates accelerates. Ever-stronger storms brew even as the recovery from the last ones is incomplete. Greece on fire. California on fire. The Amazon on fire. Fire and ice, for Robert Frost, was how the world would end. Burning or drowning feels more apt.
The indecision of a Hamlet can be fatal. From it can also arise mind-bending eloquence. It might not seem that those pears have much to do with Brenda Hillman’s extraordinary quartet of elemental and ecological works— Cascadia, Pieces of Air in the Epic, Practical Water, and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire. In a world busily dismantling Hillman builds from primal constituents: earth, air, water, and fire.
Each book builds, phrase by phrase, line by line, the language and form in which to understand how body and mind struggle to enter the world without destroying it. This is world beset with the disappointments of our moment, a world in which aquifers need anthems, string theory speaks sutras, dioxins color the world, and thus the poet tries to assess what language must to do grapple with ecological collapse. Or, as she writes in Cascadia, “Weather taught / you to write funny. When it stops / being wrecked we’ll write normally.”
Maybe the hope of normal weather and normal writing has passed. What has not is the eloquence of Hillman’s wisdom in darkening times. Extra Hidden Life Among the Days witnesses a continuing engagement with the natural world and with the political world. I find myself most drawn to the most unassumingly titled “On a Day, In the World.” Or, in the other words, when and where we are all the time. Sometimes I think our species couldn’t have better planned for the prospect its own obsolescence and demise more expertly than it seems to. As grim prospects accelerate, I feel less comfortable with anything I feel on the subject. I suppose many of us might agree we have “a grief / we didn’t understand” and it just might have to do with some “low scrub hills” or, more likely, the feeling that “humans were extra / or already gone.” For millennia poets have considered mortality, dwelt upon it as a sometimes sick and sometimes sweet obsession. No doubt that’s also why poets from Horace onward fancied themselves the makers of monuments, poems that would outlast time and weather. It seems Hillman dispenses with that so quickly here, when she identifies that basic desire to live:
a life that asks for mostly
wanting freedom to get things done
in order to feel less
helpless about the end
of things alone—
The tone is so very patient here that it seems reasonable, this vision: we are sad humans busying ourselves with work to avoid inevitable eventualities. It’s interesting to read these lines again, having just read a little of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a cli-fi or climate fiction novel that imagines a future New York as a half-drowned world. In trying to explain how earlier generations made Hamlets of themselves, failed to act, and let everything go so wrong, he writes:
But okay, you can’t really imagine a catastrophe will hit you until it does. People just don’t have that mental capacity. If you did you would be stricken paralytic with fear at all times, because there are some guaranteed catastrophes bearing down on you that you aren’t going to be able to avoid (i.e. death) so evolution has kindly given you a strategically located mental blond spot, an inability to imagine future disasters in an way you can really believe, so that you can continue to function, as pointless as that may be.
A fascinating thought—that we can bear to see our own end so we can’t really see even larger disasters. Hillman’s explanation, that we feel helpless, feels equally persuasive. But there’s something profoundly not helpless about her poetry, a poetry that takes in “the angle of gray minutes” that is the passing of time. It’s moving to see the passing of a life somehow transformed into these creatures, perhaps birds, peeling back seeds that are “the color time / will be when we are gone—”
Through water, fire, earth and air, and from pear back to seed. That’s Brenda Hillman.
On a Day, In the World
We had a grief
we didn’t understand while
standing at the edge of
some low scrub hills as if
humans were extra
or already gone;—
what had been in us before?
a life that asks for mostly
wanting freedom to get things done
in order to feel less
helpless about the end
of things alone—;
when i think of time on earth,
i feel the angle of gray minutes
entering the medium days
yet not “built-up”:: our
work together: groups, the willing
burden of an old belief,
& beyond them love, as of
a great life going like fast
creatures peeling back marked
seeds, gold-brown integuments
the color time
will be when we are gone—
From BrendaHillman.net Brenda Hillman was born in Tucson, Arizona and has been an active part of the Bay Area literary community since 1975. She has published chapbooks with Penumbra Press, a+bend press, EmPress, A Minus Press, and Albion Books and is the author of ten full-length collections from Wesleyan University Press, the most recent of which are Practical Water (2009), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), which received the International Griffin Poetry Prize for 2014 and the Northern California Book Award, and Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (2018). Hillman has also received the William Carlos Williams Prize from Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. She has edited an edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems for Shambhala Press, co-edited two books by Richard O. Moore; with Patricia Dienstfrey, she co-edited The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan, 2003). Hillman has also worked as a co-translator of three books: Poems from Above the Hill by Ashur Etwebi, Instances by Jeongrye Choi and At Your Feet by Ana Cristina Cesar, all from Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press. She is a mother, a grandmother and is married to poet Robert Hass. She has served on the permanent faculties for conferences at Community of Writers in Squaw Valley and at Napa Valley College and currently teaches at St. Mary’s College in Moraga California where she is the Olivia C. Filippi Professor of Poetry. For several decades, Hillman has worked as an activist for social and environmental justice.
Joseph Campana is a poet, arts critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of three collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005), Natural Selections (Iowa, 2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and most recently the The Book of Life (Tupelo, 2019). His poetry appears in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Colorado Review, while individual poems have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and the Southwest Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has reviewed the arts, books, media and culture widely and is the author of dozens of scholarly essays on Renaissance literature and culture as well as a study of poetics The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham, 2012). He teaches at Rice University where he is Alan Dugald McKillop Professor of English.
As we have done in recent issues, a highlight from our staff’s many accomplishments: Joseph Campana’s most recent book, The Book of Life, is out from Tupelo Press, and his poem “A Shirt Loves a Body” recently was featured in Poetry Daily. I have read both and heartily recommend them.
Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not? — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
Plume Poetry 8 is progressing quite nicely – in fact, nearly ready to go to lay out. We have an exciting roster of the finest poets — well-known and emerging, diverse in all respects — I could round up, contributing some of, I think, their finest poems. As in the past, we will debut at AWP with a blow-out reading, and thereafter schedule smaller readings around the country and abroad.
(Almost) penultimately, again a request. As you will note, I try to highlight recent of soon to be published books by Plume contributors at the conclusion of this newsletter. My method for gathering these materials is haphazard, to say the least. Now, I want to rectify that to whatever degree that is possible. So – if you have a new book — or have won some award or grant or other, perhaps send me a quick email – I want to highlight your many wonderful achievements here. And a little PR never hurts, right?
Our cover art this month comes from Robert Adams, per artnet, an American photographer best known for his images of the American West. Offering solemn meditations on the landscapes of California, Colorado, and Oregon, Adams’s black-and-white photos document the changes wrought by humans upon nature. “By Interstate 70: a dog skeleton, a vacuum cleaner, TV dinners, a doll, a pie, rolls of carpet. Later, next to the South Platte River: algae, broken concrete, jet contrails, the smell of crude oil,” he wrote. “What I hope to document, though not at the expense of surface detail, is the form that underlies this apparent chaos.” Born on May 8, 1937 in Orange, NJ, his family moved around the Midwest throughout his childhood, finally settling in Wheat Ridge, CO in 1952. Adams went on to study English at the University of Redlands and received his PhD in English from the University of Southern California in 1965. It wasn’t until the near completion of his dissertation for USC that Adams began to take photography seriously, learning techniques from professional photographer Myron Wood and reading Aperture magazine. In the 1970s, he was released the book The New West (1974), and a year later was included in the seminal exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.” Adams has twice been the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and once the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Adams lives and works in Astoria, OR. Today, his works can be found in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.
And finally, per usual, a few new releases from Plume contributors:
Here’s what critics are saying: Poetry. Edited by Daniel Lawless. PLUME POETRY 7 comprises the very best new poems from a curated roster of renowned and emerging poets, hailing from the U.S. and abroad. Its contents have been labeled “eclectic” and “with no literary axe to grind.” Here you find under one roof a host of disparate poetries, from those of Pulitzer Prize winners Rae Armantrout and Stephen Dunn, to Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize recipients Patrica Smith and this volume’s Featured Poet Angie Estes; from Billy Collins to Lydia Davis, Afaa Weaver to Kwame Dawes, Simon Armitage to Hiša Yu. But perhaps Bruce Smith says it best: “PLUME POETRY 7 offers a counter-voice to the dominant discourses of our age, a blessed alternative to broadcasts, and information, and ‘intelligence.’ There is virtuoso discernment and commitment and a discriminate sympathy at work in the assembly of these poets that remind us of our multiplicity, our endurance, our soul.” No wonder, then, that in its seventh year, the anthology has risen to the ranks of the Best American Poetry series and increasingly finds a home in some of the nation’s finest university classrooms, where by all accounts students and their instructors are perusing and using its poems to discover their own voices and, in the case of the latter, exciting new ways to guide them in that journey.
Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Birthdays, Rosh Hashanah, Canadian Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day…the perfect gift for whatever you or your loved ones celebrate — go hog wild, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll be supporting a very worthy endeavor!