Hillman, Brenda

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Nationality: American. Born: Tucson, Arizona, 27 March 1951. Education: Pomona College, California, B.A. 1973; University of Iowa, M.F.A. 1975. Family: Married 1) Leonard Michaels in 1976 (divorced 1985), one daughter; 2) Robert Hass, q.v.Career: Sales-person, University Press Books, Berkeley, California, 1975–84. Since 1984 instructor in English, St. Mary's College, Moraga, California. Awards: Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry award, College of Arts and Science, New York University, and Norma Farber First Book award, Poetry Society of America, both 1986, both for White Dress.



Coffee, 3 A.M. Lisbon, Iowa, Penumbra Press, 1981.

White Dress. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1985.

Fortress. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

Death Tractates. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1992.

Bright Existence. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

Loose Sugar. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1997.


Critical Studies: "Dark Turtles and Bright Eyes" by the author, in Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, edited by Sharon Bryan, New York, Norton, 1993; "Splendid Investigations" by Gail Wronsky, in Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), 52 (1), winter 1994; by Terri Brown-Davidson, in Prairie Schooner, 68 (2), summer 1994; "Active Magic" by Laura Mullen, in Denver Quarterly (Denver), 34 (1), spring 1999.

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A poet whose work has been associated both with some of the most experimental work coming out of the San Francisco area and a more traditional lyrical strain in American poetry, Brenda Hillman defies easy classification. Although she is profoundly interested in gnosticism, she is also a poet very much involved with the mundanities of contemporary life; that is, her work does not shirk an attachment to the material world in its plummeting of gnosis. Her methods for uncovering the "secret knowledge" (mystical apprehension of the godhead) are as varied as the subject matter of her poetry. Hypnosis, radical formal experimentation, and even an attempt to render the transformative processes of the alchemists in a textual representation on the page have all been part of her poetics. Certainly her engagement in the Berkeley literary scene in the 1980s and early 1990s has helped invigorate this dynamic experimental range in her work, although her vision and poetry are her own. Hillman's books of poetry constitute an important late twentieth-century exploration of poetics and the spirit, an exploration compelled by aesthetic, political, and spiritual obsessions.

Hillman's first two books, Coffee 3 A.M. and White Dress, although possessed of a blossoming lyrical voice, were certainly neither as innovative nor as realized as her work in Fortress. Coming of age when the canonical tradition tended to marginalize women writers, Hillman in her early work seems to grapple with what it is to be a woman poet in the late twentieth century, what modulations of voice seem appropriate. If Fortress established Hillman's abilities, then the following two volumes, Death Tractates and Bright Existence, announced her mature and incisive voice.

They are a paired set of books, with the poems of Death Tractates revolving around the loss of a dear friend. Parting and separation are recurring threads, and although the book is elegiac, the poems explore more than the depressive depths of such loss. The relationship between the spiritual and the material, existence and nonexistence, and male and female otherness are also central threads.

Bright Existence continues these explorations, adding the trope of lightness and darkness. These dualisms obsess and compel Hillman, and certainly one way to think of both of the books is as dualistic poles of expression. Death Tractates articulates the dark side of the soul's search for connection with its divine origin, while Bright Existence articulates the interconnectedness of all divisions and offers a more hopeful vision of the possibility of finding the gnosis.

This is not to imply that Hillman's vision ever reaches any conclusions. Instead, her poetry is a poetry of exploration, provisionality, and possibility. In her following book, Loose Sugar, she continues to explore how identity is created, and perhaps it is with this volume that she begins to articulate a more concise version of how the shaped identity under consideration in her work is more explicitly feminine. She explores the process through a variety of tropes, many of them connected to colonization and marginalization, as well as to the emergence of sexuality. For instance, consider these lines from "Orion's Belt":

   When you think of those
   you will not touch again
   in this lifetime
   You own a few points on the one body.
   Some made you happy.
   Everything else-
   The pale sword of the hunter,
   the uplifted sandal,
   everything else mostly fades
   in the folds of heaven-

The bodies of the men with whom the speaker interacts become a way in which her bodily nature and theirs are connected to the greater body of the cosmos. Other poems that focus on South America and the exploitations of Chevron are far less optimistic.

One of the most engaging formal aspects of Loose Sugar is Hillman's attempt in several of the poems to represent alchemical processes on the page. She uses a "pretextual" and "posttextual" arrangement of detritus that sifts into and from the creative process of the making of the poem, a method that is difficult to describe without extended quotation. Formal experiments of this kind also appear to be a part of Hillman's later writing. In the poem "Geology," for instance, she arranges "trigger" words in the corners of the page that almost gravitationally compel the textual development of the work. Probably one of America's foremost experimental religious poets, Hillman offers an exciting engagement with both the archaic and the contemporary worlds.

—Tod Marshall

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