Air for Mercury
Air for Mercury
Brenda Hillman's poem "Air for Mercury" was published in her 2001 collection Cascadia, which most critics acknowledge is Hillman's most ambitious work, if not her most accessible work. The volume was inspired by Hillman's love for her adopted state of California. Cascadia refers to the prehistoric landmass that predates California and America's West Coast—a landmass that was submerged under the ocean more than 100 million years ago. In Cascadia, Hillman uses this ancient geological occurrence as a springboard to map the various geological and cultural characteristics of modern-day California. But, as Hillman herself notes in an online interview with Poets & Writers magazine, "The main geography of the book is the idea of mind-as-earth." The book, then, becomes an exploration of the shifting tectonic plates of the human mind, what she refers to as "the ceaseless slow and potentially violent nature of change . . . the upheaval of ideas or feelings." This abstract notion permeates the book and is present in "Air for Mercury," which some students may find confusing at first. In the poem, Hillman seems to incorporate several different image systems and concepts in one shifting mass that defies cohesiveness. But by viewing the poem in terms of the human "change" that Hillman notes, the poem begins to make sense, and its dominant themes, the loss of religious faith and comprehension as modern society moves toward secularization, begin to shine through. A copy of the poem can be found in Cascadia, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2001.
Hillman was born on March 27, 1951, in Tucson, Arizona. She began writing poetry as a child and pursued her love of writing at Pomona College in California, where she graduated in 1973 with her bachelor's degree. She continued her graduate education at the University of Iowa, where she received her master's of fine arts degree in 1975. After school, she moved back to her adopted state of California, where she worked as a salesperson for University Press Books in Berkeley from 1975 to 1984. During this time, she married Leonard Michaels (1976) and published her first book of poetry, Coffee, 3 A.M. (1982). In 1984, she began teaching English at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California. She eventually became a professor of creative writing, a post she still holds today.
In 1985, Hillman published her second volume of poetry, White Dress. She and Michaels were divorced the same year. Over the next decade, Hillman published four more books of poetry: Fortress (1989), Death Tractates (1992), Bright Existence (1993), and Loose Sugar (1997). Through these works, Hillman established herself as an extremely experimental poet, and some critics consider her 2001 collection, Cascadia —which includes the poem, "Air for Mercury"—to be her most ambitious experiment yet.
After the double party
for the poorly loved
when the gleam in the hound's eye
fell like glass rain on the south 5
lawn of the countergarden, when
the image of false flags sank
in the mirrored plaques,
when the mirrored plaques
had been passed in, they took
your days and gave them back, 10
before you unsnapped first
the crenellated shoulder wings
then the fumbling then the little
ankle wings and sent them back 15
to the wing patrol, in the box,
in the metal box, in the genital
mouth of the rose (the open forms
of the state left so
undone that you were stranded 20
on the nonimperial coast having
a boat unnamed for you)
you were free, you were
having a bout of meaning—
A leaf hurried on its
side. Of what is knowledge made? 25
A season stopped by without your
noticing, saying, lost file, breath boy;
the sun had leaked its power
into things, and all notation had 30
become inaccurate suddenly, you'd been trying
to talk to them from this
coast, you'd been trying to help
them in their small groups.
Monsters of will and monsters of
willlessness confront the garden; a dragon 35
crow greets the dusk with its
prow. Rhyming is a tool of
friendly desperation. The spirits will return
though they're not here now.
Oracles, iron, the misuse of fire 40
under the young earth, and this
business of being infinitely swept up
in possibility so when you put
your hand down on something white
you noticed that detail, punctuated by 45
luckless forms. But night had been
deployed: see-through parts of the moon:
lace, anima mundi; and weren't there
two forevers, words and space, between 50
which more experience might ride, unencumbered?
You were supposed to tell them
what they'd missed; they'd read your
logics, your letters. So little space
between your letters, the words couldn't
easily air themselves. Remember going back 55
and forth between the rooms? Blue,
green; the wings had been adjusted.
You were meant to take black
netting off a face or two. Take 60
something. Passion brought you
here; passion will save you.
The first noticeable aspect of Hillman's "Air for Mercury" is the title, which can be interpreted in two different ways. The title could be noting an alchemical change, where air is transformed into the metal mercury. Or, it could denote the Roman god, Mercury. At first, it's not clear if either of these interpretations is correct. The poem's first section starts out with the following two-line stanza: "After the double party / for the poorly loved." At this point, it is too early to guess what this "double party" might signify, or who the "poorly loved" might be. The next few lines give some more setting details: "when the gleam in the hound's eye / fell like glass rain on the south / lawn of the countergarden." As with the terms "double party" and "poorly loved," the "hound" is probably symbolic. A symbol is a physical object, action, or gesture that also represents an abstract concept, without losing its original identity. Symbols appear in literature in one of two ways. They can be local symbols, meaning that their symbolism is only relevant within a specific literary work. They can also be universal symbols, meaning that their symbolism is based on traditional associations that are widely recognized, regardless of context. Again, it is unclear at this point who or what the hound is meant to symbolize, and whether or not this symbol is local or universal.
The image of the "countergarden," however, draws attention to itself. In literature, poets and authors often use gardens to symbolize the biblical Garden of Eden. Looked at in this way then, the "countergarden" could symbolize the human world after the biblical fall from grace when Adam and Eve were forced to leave Eden. Yet, again, this is only one interpretation, and this interpretation does not necessarily coincide with the next part of the poem: "when / the image of false flags sank." What are these false flags, and whose flags are they? In any case, Hillman notes that the image of these flags "sank / in the mirrored plaques," and that "when the mirrored plaques / had been passed in, they took / your days and gave them back." At this point, one can start to make some assumptions about the poem, the biggest of which is the fact that Hillman is trying to convey a sense of time passing, and of several human events having occurred. The "false flags" seem to refer to one of the human wars, most likely a modern war involving the United States, since the dominant topic that pervades Hillman's Cascadia is the history of California. In this case, the mirrored plaques might be referencing a type of after-war ceremony, where the victors give each other plaques and other awards of distinction. Yet, the war could also be symbolic and meant to convey the sense of an ideological war.
With the phrase "took / your days," Hillman identifies a subject for the poem. But who is the "your" referring to? Returning to the title of the poem, the "your" could be referring to the god Mercury, and Roman gods in general, since the days of the week were originally named after Roman gods, including Mercury (Wednesday was originally known as Mercury's day). This interpretation would introduce a strange time paradox because the renaming of the Roman days into their current Anglo-Saxon incarnations took place long before the founding of California and even before the founding of the United States. What becomes clear at this point is that Hillman is not creating a unified image system. If one tries to literally analyze the majority of her words, as one usually does in poetry, it leads to a number of conflicting interpretations. Instead, Hillman is a poet of sense and feel, as the next lines indicate: "before you unsnapped first / the crenellated shoulder wings / then the fumbling then the little / ankle wings." Again, it is tempting to think that Hillman is talking about the god Mercury, who is known for his wings. Yet, Mercury is usually depicted as having either ankle wings or a winged hat, not shoulder wings, which are more a hallmark of Christian angels. So with these lines, it becomes clear that Hillman is merging several concepts. Her references to Roman mythology help to introduce the concept of religion, which is underscored by the addition of angel-like shoulder wings, a symbol that points to the Christian religions.
In the next lines, the religious character to whom the poem is addressed sends its wings "back / to the wing patrol, in the box / in the metal box, in the genital / mouth of the rose." Now that one understands the first section of the poem is talking about religious issues in general, Hillman's imagery begins to make sense. The "wing patrol" becomes an institution, or perhaps a collection of institutions, that has stripped religion of its wings, which could be interpreted as symbolizing faith, or religious influence. The box itself, which is made of metal, is tied to the human world, since metal is an earthly element. And the fact that the box is referred to as a "genital mouth of the rose" indicates that this loss of faith is, in part, due to an increase in sexual freedom, which has helped to undermine the moral aims of many traditional religions. Hillman inserts a parenthetical phrase that covers many lines and which talks about "the open forms / of the state" being "undone," and thus leaving the religious figure "stranded / on the nonimperial coast having / a boat unnamed for you." These lines seem to reference the separation of church and state that is a part of America's constitution. Since these state institutions are not allowed to endorse religion, the religious figure loses even more influence and becomes "stranded" on a coast—the coast of California. The coast is "nonimperial" because America is a democracy, unlike the English monarchy from which the first English-speaking settlers emigrated to North America.
In the second section, Hillman switches gears, invoking an image of nature and posing a question. As with the first stanza, these two concepts do not seem to relate to each other. But, in the next stanza, Hillman again evokes the idea of nature, in this case a season: "A season stopped by without your / noticing, saying, lost file, breath boy." Here, Hillman is discussing the modern predicament of being so involved with the everyday details of one's life and work that the seasons can pass without notice. The use of the words "lost file" seem to imply a lost computer file, as if nature is just one more bit of computer data to be processed and that it can be "lost" as a piece of binary data can be lost if one is not careful.
The next lines continue the associations with nature, saying that "the sun had leaked its power / into things." While Hillman could be talking only about the sun itself, the previous focus on religion in the poem suggests otherwise. In a symbolic sense, the sun is often associated with the divine. So, if the sun has leaked its power into things, then this is a sign that the secularization of human society, addressed with the religious references in the first section, is far advanced, and religious power has been transferred into material items. Taken in this context, the "notation" that Hillman mentions next refers to Scripture or other religious writing, which are thought to have been inspired by God but were transcribed by human hands. This makes sense when one looks at the next lines: "you'd been trying / to talk to them from this / coast." Again, the "you" refers back to the unnamed religious figure in the poem, who, symbolically stranded in California, has been trying to spread the message of religion. This figure had "been trying to help / them in their small groups." This wording evokes an image of a small group of people gathering for church. Also, the use of the word "small" is important because it underscores the decline of church attendance in California.
In the third section, Hillman begins to tie these concepts together: "Monsters of will and monsters of / willlessness confront the garden." Here, Hillman plays off of the image of the countergarden that she used in the first section, as she talks about the "monsters," which refer to the classic human sins. For example, a monster of will could refer to "pride" or "anger," while a monster of "willlessness" could refer to the sin of "sloth." The mention of "dusk" in the next line is also symbolic since darkness is often used to denote evil, or ignorance, or one of countless other negative meanings. The next lines seem to indicate that the darkness is a form of spiritual darkness: "Rhyming is a tool of / friendly desperation." This rhyming evokes images of the rhymes found in church choir songs, which are generally friendly, given their communal quality, but which can also be sung in desperation by the hopeless, the spiritually dark, who are searching for their faith. But as Hillman notes, "The spirits will return / though they're not here now."
The final section of the poem starts out with several references to religion and earth: "Oracles, iron, the misuse of fire / under the young earth, and this / business of being infinitely swept up / in possibility," The oracles evoke the classical mythology of the Greeks and Romans, which again ties into the idea of the god Mercury. The rest of these lines seem to discuss the concept of faith. When people are truly faithful, they can be "infinitely swept up / in possibility." The "luckless forms" mentioned a few lines later refer back to the "forms" mentioned in the first section, which, again, referred to American institutions. The word "luckless" implies a negative, as if people cannot find hope in these institutions. For, as Hillman notes next, "night had been / deployed." Again, in this poem, Hillman uses darkness as a symbol of spiritual darkness. In the next line, she takes another religious jump when she discusses "anima mundi," a Latin phrase meaning "world soul." This philosophy states that there is a universal soul that is related to the physical Earth in the same way that the human soul is related to the physical human body. So at this point, Hillman has referenced classical Roman mythology, Christianity, and anima mundi. After exploring these various forms of religion, she changes tactics again.
In the second half of the anima mundi line, she asks "weren't there / two forevers, words and space." The words evoke the image of the "notation" that Hillman referenced before, which, again, is a reference to religious writing. So, if there are two forevers between these religious words and space, then Hillman is saying people need to read between the lines and not focus so heavily on the words themselves. The reference a few lines later to "your / logics, your letters" seems to take this concept and apply it to the philosophical texts of the classical world, the Greek and Roman world of gods such as Mercury. Using the above interpretation, Hillman is talking about logical and religious writings from the classical world, which people should not take too literally because, as Hillman notes, there was "So little space / between your letters, the words couldn't / easily air themselves." It is here that Hillman ties the poem to its title. "Air for Mercury" is Hillman's request to "air" out ancient writings—both ancient religious texts and philosophical texts from Greek and Roman times when they believed in gods such as Mercury—and read between the lines, finding personal meaning in both the words and the spaces.
The last two stanzas reinforce this, as Hillman notes that "You," which at this point could be loosely interpreted as any form of religion or religious influence, and not necessarily a specific religious character such as Mercury, "were meant to take black / netting off a face or two." Netting, or veils, are symbolic objects that hide something. So Hillman is saying that these various forms of religion were meant to illuminate life for their followers. But as Hillman notes in the final stanza, "Passion brought you / here; passion will save you." In other words, she is saying that organized religions and philosophies, which follow strict interpretations of words, are not the way to salvation. Instead, people should follow their passions, read between the lines, and develop their own beliefs.
Hillman's poem examines a number of religious themes, the primary one being the concept of religious faith. Over the course of the poem, Hillman uses several symbols that indicate this faith is being lost. In the first section, Hillman addresses the poem to what at first appears to be the classical Roman god, Mercury. This figure sports "crenellated shoulder wings," which is an important detail. When something is "crenellated," it is furnished with battlements, the square notches found on castle towers, which were used to provide openings through which to shoot at one's foes with arrows. The fact that Hillman is using a warlike image underscores the conflict between religion and secularism over the course of human history, especially in modern life, where the poem ends. In this section, religion loses the battle, and the Mercury character is forced to take off his shoulder and ankle wings, which are boxed up—a clear sign of the loss of religion. Without these wings, which are the source of this figure's power and which could be loosely interpreted as religious influence, the figure is "stranded" in California, a state that, as both this poem and others in the Cascadia volume indicate, has lost its faith. This loss of faith is symbolized in other ways in the poem, such as in the third section, where Hillman discusses "Monsters of will and monsters of / willlessness," which confront the biblical Garden of Eden, thus ensuring that man will remain a fallen race. As this loss of faith continues, the "dusk" in the third section, becomes "night" in the final section, symbolizing complete spiritual darkness.
In addition to the loss of religious faith, Hillman indicates, as time passes in the poem, there is the loss of religious comprehension. She hints at this loss in the beginning of the second section, when she poses the question, "Of what is knowledge made?" While knowledge can be taken to mean many things, within the context of the poem, which uses a lot of different religious symbols, this knowledge is increasingly identified as religious knowledge. Later on in the same section, Hillman notes that "all notation had / become inaccurate." These notations, or classic religious texts, are inaccurate because they do not apply to modern life anymore. A new translation is needed. Likewise, church songs, referred to in the poem as "Rhyming" that is used as "a tool of / friendly desperation," no longer illuminate religion for people. In the final section, Hillman addresses the issue of religious comprehension head-on, talking about "two forevers, words and space, between / which more experience might ride, unencumbered?" Hillman's emphasis on the word experience, is important. This emphasis implies that if people give up the old ways and do not stick to the old interpretations of religious texts, they may have a better experience in life. By reading between the lines, and allowing both the words—and by extension, the religious concepts attached to these words—to air themselves, then people can regain their religious faith, begin to comprehend the concepts behind the words, and ultimately save themselves by finding the passion of religion once again.
Topics For Further Study
- In the poem, Hillman makes use of a seasonal motif in her structure to help convey the sense of time passing. Find another literary work that uses a seasonal motif and compare it to Hillman's poem. Make a list of the comparisons you find and note where they differ.
- Research the mythology surrounding the Roman gods, including Mercury. Create a chart that shows the place of each of these gods as they were viewed in the divine hierarchy. Include a small description for each god, highlighting which aspects of human life they were associated.
- Research the philosophy of anima mundi. Write an essay outlining the history and characteristics of this philosophy. In your essay, compare anima mundi to another religion or philosophy that is either very similar or vastly different.
- Research the doctrine and rituals of two religions other than the one you practice or the one in which you were raised. Discuss at least one of the traditional texts associated with these religions. Then, using Hillman's suggestion of "airing" out the words, try to read between the lines of these words and generate other possible interpretations.
- "Air for Mercury," like all of the poems in Cascadia, was initially inspired by Hillman's fascination with the prehistoric landmass known as Cascadia, which was submerged off the western coast of the United States more than 100 million years ago. Draw a map of what the world most likely looked like at this point and identify the locations of at least five modern-day countries, including the United States.
The most noticeable aspect of Hillman's "Air for Mercury" is its structure. Hillman divides the poem up into four separate sections, which are labeled with simple numbers, one through four. This construction is deliberate on the poet's part and works to reinforce the underlying subject of the poem, the passage of time. The number four is a potent number in poetry, especially in poems that discuss time passing, because it evokes images of the four seasons passing in nature—a powerful theme that many authors employ in their literature. Indeed, as the poem progresses, Hillman gives little clues that each section may be intended to stand for a season. Sometimes these clues are blatant, such as in the second stanza of the second section, when she notes that "A season stopped by without your / noticing." In other sections, the link to seasons is more subtle, such as in the third section, when Hillman talks about the crow greeting "dusk," a natural state that precedes darkness in a typical day.
In literature, the season of winter is also often symbolized by darkness since when snow blankets the land, the days get shorter and darker. Winter is also commonly associated with death since most vegetation dies during the winter and is reborn in the spring. This concept correlates to Hillman's references to spiritual death, and her use of "something white" in the fourth section could very well be a reference to snow. So, if this is the case, then the dusk reference in the third section would relate to the season of fall, which precedes winter. Working backwards then, the second section would correlate to summer and the first section would correlate to spring. Given the context of the poem, which depicts a religious faith that starts out strong but slowly weakens and dies as organized religion becomes cumbersome and society embraces secularization, it makes sense that Hillman structures the poem to follow a natural, seasonal cycle.
Given the shifting quality of the poem, it is unclear when Hillman intended "Air for Mercury" to take place. She uses time-sensitive words such as "After" in the first line and "before" in the eleventh line, which indicate that she does have a time in mind, but these and other time-related words do not work together as a whole to give the reader a clear sense of time and place, and, as noted above, Hillman seems to take a long historical view when discussing religion, going back as far as classical Greek and Roman times, and as far forward as modern day. Yet, Hillman seems to use this indeterminate setting for a reason to reinforce the underlying concept of change. As the poet herself notes of Cascadia in an online interview with Poets & Writers magazine, "It is conglomerate and metamorphic in that it seems like a gathering of materials about change."
It is not hard to understand Hillman's focus on change, when one looks at the state of affairs in the United States and the world at the time that Hillman was writing the poem. The last few years of the 1990s and the first part of the new millennium were as chaotic as the shifting geology of modern-day California. A number of world-changing events happened in rapid succession, which collectively undermined society's feeling of security and stability. During the late 1990s, United States President William Jefferson Clinton was embroiled in a number of scandals, including a sexual harassment suit that was brought against him by former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones. This case led to the infamous exposure of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, and ultimately to Clinton's impeachment by the United States House of Representatives on December 19, 1998—although he was acquitted in his United States Senate trial. Clinton was only the second United States president to be impeached, and in poll after poll, this move was not supported by most of the American population, some of whom worried that the social stability of the country would be weakened if the president was impeached.
In the late 1990s, the world was gripped in a millennial fever. In addition to the supposed religious significance that some groups attributed to the millennial change, society also faced what appeared to be an impending, global technology breakdown: the Y2K bug. This so-called bug was really just a programming error from the early days of computers. When computers were first developed, memory space was very expensive, so programmers saved space and money by truncating the four-digit year and using just the last two digits. Even after the modern computer revolution, when computer storage space became much cheaper, programmers tended to use two-digit years out of habit. In the 1990s, some computers, such as retail computers that tried to process credit cards that expired after the year 2000, would not accept the post-2000 two-digit years. For example, 2003 would be read by the computer as "03," or "1903," which took place before the 1990s, so the computer would think it was an error and refuse to process it. These isolated examples led to a widespread panic, and many predicted that the world's technology, which was largely driven by computer chips that contained this faulty coding, would shut down on January 1, 2000. Companies, governments, and consumers around the world collectively invested billions of dollars in computer renovations to fix the problem. As it turned out, New Year's Day 2000 passed without incident.
Later that year, however, the American people witnessed more instability in its highest office, in this case during the controversial 2000 presidential election. The anticipated tight race between Democratic candidate Albert Gore and Republican candidate George W. Bush turned out to be even closer than expected. While the votes were still being tallied, it appeared that George W. Bush was the clear winner, and Gore phoned Bush to concede. But as the election results were tabulated in Florida—where people in certain counties complained of confusing voting ballots—it became clear that the election was going to come down to just a handful of votes. With this tight margin and with the prospect of confusing ballots that might have caused people to vote for the wrong candidate, Gore withdrew his concession and filed for a hand recount of the Florida vote. Bush moved to block this recount, and the battle raged along partisan lines for more than a month, everywhere from the press to the Florida legislature to both Florida and federal courts. Ultimately, the case went to the United States Supreme Court, which stated that any recount must be completed before the official deadline for certifying official votes. Since this ruling came mere hours before this deadline, not leaving enough time for a hand recount, the presidential election, for the first time ever, was essentially decided by the United States Supreme Court.
Hillman's Cascadia has received largely positive reviews, although many critics have noted the difficulty of the work. As Kevin Arnold notes in the online poetry journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, "The only constant on the pages of Cascadia is the page number." This lack of cohesiveness is not a negative aspect, though, according to Arnold: "Her poetry is not intentionally obscure," he says. "However, given the scope of the greater work, individual poems are not necessarily easy to comprehend on a first reading." In her review of the book for Library Journal, Rochelle Ratner agrees: "Not for the casual poetry reader, Cascadia is nevertheless highly recommended." Ratner sees the chaotic nature of Hillman's collection as evidence of "a mature poet taking more risks with each successive volume." Indeed, the reviewer for Tikkun calls Cascadia Hillman's "best book yet" and says that the poet "finds herself 'in search for the search' of a poem." For Hillman, as the reviewer notes, "The poem is 'Cascadia,' a land-mass west of a California submerged beneath the ocean circa 130 million years ago." This reviewer is one of many who comment on the relation of this landmass and geology in general to the poems in Hillman's collection. But not everybody is totally enamored of the book. For example, while the Publishers Weekly reviewer notes that the poems are "sometimes inspired," the reviewer also says of the book as a whole that Hillman "spins a luminescent web of vivid, disjunctive lines into an uncertain whole." The reviewer notes that this uncertainty, especially in longer poems, which would include "Air for Mercury," is not always a good thing. While "Hillman's longer pieces try hard . . . the results can shine in single lines and stanzas, though they sometimes fail to cohere."
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Hillman's use of structure to influence the pacing in the poem.
Reading and understanding a poem such as Hillman's "Air for Mercury" takes work, as some critics note of the entire Cascadia volume. Rochelle Ratner, the reviewer for Library Journal, says that the volume is "Not for the casual poetry reader." Likewise, in his review of the volume for Valparaiso Poetry Review, Kevin Arnold notes that "The only constant on the pages of Cascadia is the page number," although he does not see Hillman's poems as "intentionally obscure." But Arnold also acknowledges that "given the scope of the greater work, individual poems are not necessarily easy to comprehend on a first reading." This is especially true for some of Hillman's longer poems in the book, such as "Air for Mercury." As the Publishers Weekly reviewer notes, "Hillman's longer pieces try hard," but while "the results can shine in single lines and stanzas . . . they sometimes fail to cohere." Still, in the case of "Air for Mercury," by examining the poem's pacing, which is directly influenced by Hillman's choice of structure, the poet's intent becomes clear.
The pacing of a literary work refers to the speed at which it progresses. In poetry, a work's intended pacing is largely determined by the type of structural elements that a poet uses. The first element that Hillman uses in "Air for Mercury" is the length of the sections. A casual glance at the poem reveals a huge disparity in the size of the four sections. Visually, the first and fourth sections appear to be the longest, while the middle sections are noticeably shorter. When one counts up the lines in each section, this initial observation proves to be true. The first section contains twenty-three lines, the second contains ten lines, the third contains six lines, and the fourth contains twenty-two lines. By bookending her poem with longer sections like this, it appears that the pacing will be slowest in these lengthy sections, since it will take readers longer to read them. But just as Hillman's imagery is deceptive—shifting among several different concepts—the structure is also not what it appears.
When one examines the flow of the poem within the first section and compares it to the flow within the other sections, the first, and longest, section turns out to have the fastest pacing—due to Hillman's use of enjambment. Poets use the technique of enjambment, which means continuing a phrase or sentence from one line or stanza to the next, to express various thematic or emotional qualities. When one examines the first section, it is revealed that this section is, in fact, one long phrase that is continued over twenty-three lines. The phrase is not even technically a sentence, since it ends on a dash, not a period: "having a bout of meaning—" As Hillman notes of Cascadia in an online interview with Poets & Writers magazine, she was interested in the shifting geology of the human mind. The book, then, becomes an exploration of what Hillman refers to as "the ceaseless slow and potentially violent nature of change . . . the upheaval of ideas or feelings."
This feeling of change is most apparent in the first section, which essentially gives an overview of human history and religious ideology as it has changed through the ages. While Hillman notes in her interview that change is "slow," in the context of the first section of the poem this change is very quick and chaotic because she piles all of the historical events on top of each other in one long phrase. The section lacks the hard stop of any punctuation endmarks—such as periods, question marks, or exclamation points—which complete a thought in poetry before moving on to the next one. The main body of the section does not even include any alternative punctuation marks that could be used as an endstop, such as a semicolon or a dash. As a result, the reader does not have any motivation to stop and so reads through this long, multi-stanza phrase without stopping, until reaching the single dash, located at the very end of the section. In fact, Hillman's choice to end this section on a dash is also calculated. By indicating that the sentence never ends, she underscores the idea of change, which, as she notes in her interview, is also "ceaseless."
In the second section, however, Hillman abruptly switches the pace, slowing it down to express several distinct thoughts, such as in the first stanza: "A leaf hurried by on its / side. Of what is knowledge made?" In a marked contrast to the first section, where there are no hard endmarks, this section includes two endmarks (a period and a question mark) within the first two-line stanza. Hillman's intent is clear. In the first section, the theme was the ceaseless change and evolution of the human mind and its associated ideologies, but, in the second stanza, she is slowing the reading pace down, giving her readers time to reflect on what she is saying. Ironically, while she slows down the reading pace, the themes she discusses in this second section all deal with the rapid pace of human life. The leaf is "hurried," just as the unnamed person in the third line is hurrying through life, and misses an entire season, which "stopped by without your / noticing," because the person is so involved with the everyday details of life and work.
The third section is also a slower-paced section, consisting of four distinct, enjambed thoughts which are separated by semicolons or periods. Collectively, these four thoughts address the lack of faith in Hillman's society, where "Monsters of will and monsters of / willlessness confront the garden." In this culture of sin and temptation, "Rhyming," or spending time singing in church, "is a tool of / friendly desperation." People have lost faith and are desperate because they may not get it back.
In the beginning of the fourth section, the pace mimics that of the first section. Hillman includes one long, stream-of-consciousness-style thought that is enjambed over the first four stanzas, ending in the middle of the fourth stanza. As with the first section, these stanzas give an overview, in this case of various religious and philosophical ideas, such as "Oracles" and "this / business of being infinitely swept up / in possibility," which reflects a sense of hope and faith. Yet, Hillman soon slows down the pace again: "But night had been / deployed." The short sentence about night underscores the spiritual darkness that exists in the modern world. And by ending the enjambed sentence on one word, "deployed," this word sticks out and is given more emphasis.
This is deliberate on Hillman's part. "Deployed" is a word commonly associated with war, so the intent is to show that society is losing the war against religious despair. Hillman also chooses to end the section, and the poem, with a series of short, enjambed sentences, in which she talks about taking "black / netting off a face or two," and advises the "you" character, which at this point can be viewed as a general reference to religion, to "Take / something." This two-word sentence, the shortest in the poem, sticks out because it is so short. Hillman is hinting to her readers here, letting them know that this thought is important. What should readers take away from the poem, though? The answer is in the last sentence: "Passion brought you / here; passion will save you." Hillman is advocating getting in touch with one's passions, which she believes are the key to salvation, not organized, inflexible religious doctrine.
Hillman employs one final structural element to influence both the pacing and the meaning of the poem. Throughout the poem, in all four sections, she relies mainly on two-line stanzas. But in the first section, she switches tactics after the seventh stanza and includes a one-line stanza, "to the wing patrol, in the box," which draws attention to itself. In fact, although the first section still reads quickly, as noted before, the contrast between the two-line stanzas and the sudden, shorter stanza is enough to slow the pace down a little. When a poet employs a variation from an otherwise uniform structure, he or she generally does so for a reason. In Hillman's case, she chooses to do this to underscore her thoughts about organized religion. A "wing patrol" is Hillman's way of symbolizing the institutions that have stripped religion, and spirituality in general, of its faith, through rigid doctrine that does not make as much sense in modern life.
In the end, the seemingly chaotic and shifting pace of Hillman's poem, while adhering to the poet's intention of mapping the chaotic geology of the human mind, becomes yet another tool that she uses to underscore the importance of not adhering to rigid religious doctrine. For, just as the earth's tectonic plates shift and rearrange, crushing any rigid structures in their path, so must spirituality be flexible or risk being crushed by the shifting of human society itself.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on "Air for Mercury," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.
Brenda Hillman and Tod Marshall
In the following interview conducted in the summer of 1998, Hillman discusses poetic influences, gender, and spirituality.
Brenda and I talked in Kensington, California, during summer 1998.
[Marshall:] In your poem "Magdalene," there's a line, "So few women in the text," and it seems to me that this is a statement of tremendous implication. How does this absence shape a woman poet's initiation to poetry?
[Hillman:] It's impossible to know the extent of it. The text referred to is, of course, the text in general and the Bible in particular. I ignored the absences of women for a long time in my reading, though the first three poets I loved as a young girl were women—Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dickinson, and Plath—if you don't count the authors of the Psalms.But when I read Plath as a teenager, I barely noticed she was female—this was just after the appearance of Ariel. When I read her work later, I did notice, and that put me on a precipice looking over the other side. The Modernists I had started with were Eliot and Stevens; then I read the rest of the Modernist canon, the Symbolists, the Surrealists, and studied poetic traditions and movements in a systematic way. In my heart I felt deeply divided between the crazy ones who observe how their senses leave them and the ones who want to make sense. So I was thinking more about image, style, the imagination's various ways rather than matters of gender, and when I noticed how few women there were, I felt missionary zeal about speaking to that absence. Whatever forces had seemed to stop women—the forces of history and economic circumstance and the body—had been changing for a while—this was in the early eighties. In the Bay Area at that time, it became impossible to ignore women in poetry.
So for a while you had ignored the absences. Can you describe the effect of being immersed in so many male writers? Or, to put it another way, if poetics are gendered, as many think they are, how does it affect one's poetics to be immersed in such a masculine broth?
Your awareness shifts. I'm not sure whether anything about writing can be only gender-specific. Surely there are experiences only women can have, and some that only men can have. Many of the stylistic devices that are said to characterize the writing by women poets in the last two decades—the use of the fragment, polysyntactic structures, non sequitur—are of course standard Modernist practices. You can trace nearly all technique to previous technique if you get down to it—one thing might come from Mallarmé, or from H.D., or from Stein. But it seems that a lot of exploratory writing in the last few decades by women has come out of a feeling of new freedom, that there is a different air to breathe, and this is probably different for each writer. When I was working on Death Tractates, I was aware of making a new form of feminized pastoral in territory that hadn't been worked before, but I certainly heard the origins of it in what I had studied, and I guess my "masculine broth" had always been a mix. Besides the Modernists, I remember being obsessed with Baudelaire in my freshman year of college, then André Breton. My friend Luke Menand and I sat around reading Jim Tate's poetry after Surrealism class. If you have a decent education in poetry as an undergraduate, you feel like you're crunching through autumn woods that are very populated, very full of spirits, and you can hear every twig snap. All young writers feel that everything has been done by the great dead guys, and some of the women of my generation experienced this odd double effect—perhaps it's the opposite of what Bloom calls the "anxiety of influence"—one of my friends called it her "excuse me, I'm coming through." One of my teachers in grad school—Sandy McPherson—taught a course in women's poetry. I read Bishop and Stein and H.D. for the first time. Some of us were also reading Donald Allen's anthology, stuff that wasn't really on everyone's list, like Wieners and Duncan and Ashbery. When I moved to the Bay Area there was a lively community of women poets; my first friend, Patricia Dienstfrey, was helping found Kelsey Street Press to publish experimental poetry by women. That small press and How(ever) played important roles in my thinking about form and process and women's writing. I guess the answer that I do think about being a woman poet in a time that has been important historically for women's writing, but for me and for most of the writers I know, gender is only a part of it. Often I go back to this early exposure to Millay, Dickinson and Plath.
Millay and Dickinson are very different poets. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but it seems as though your attraction to Dickinson has endured longer than your attraction to Millay. Why is that? What fascinates you about Dickinson and brings you back to her work?
Well, Dickinson is before her time, and Millay is after her time. She's a traditional nineteenth century Romanticist. I read Millay when I was nine or ten because my dad gave me the book. Her kind of lyricism seemed to me a place of freedom, the musical mode of a single soul pleading. It was magical yearning for the fullness of sound.
Early Yeats does that for me.
Yeah, same sort of dynamic. Dickinson is the mysterious otherness that included everything. She invented or brought into the light rare things that had existed always in the spirit but hadn't been voiced. Things one doesn't know one has inside are brought forth, and she did so many things—the fragmented form, the flexible reflexivity of the phrase, consciousness as the main issue, there's nobody there and everybody, the text looking at itself—a sort of pre-Post modernism. She gets at the absolute radical center of the universe where it doesn't exist.
Which poems are your favorites? In which do you see this dynamic most vividly in?
"My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun," "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," of course. "There's a certain Slant of light," "Pain has an element of blank"—generally the great pain ones! I did a little edition of Dickinson for Shambhala, and the selection I made is in some ways a cross section of poems about the types and degrees of spiritual difficulty. It sort of seems like the incremental examination of the conditions of the mind is all most poets are good for, and Dickinson's genius lies in her language of agony and enduring what it means. The ones that are most about the impossibility of knowing how to exist. The titlelessness of her work is connected to her concept of heaven, and having a heaven that exists both as an absolute and not at all, she gives us this vacancy "above." She looks up into the beyond and sees a faceless eternity that isn't reflecting the self back to her. But of course, she could-n't do it all; poets after her had to continue this work.
Do you think that the pain Dickinson articulates is connected to the concept of gendered poetics? The poet who's usually paired with Emily isgranddaddy Walt, and his poetry—although not without its moments of intense grief and suffering—is generally more optimistic, ebullient, exuberant. Does gender play a role in that?
I don't know. There is something right about pairing Emily and Walt, and I know people who are actual couples whose personalities or world-roles get archetyped and established. It may not be about gender difference because I know same sex couples who are paired in people's minds that way: one as the intensely inward and spiritual and the other as outgoing and earthy and so on. "Emily-and-Walt" is so odd because both poets are ecstatics, but their ecstasies take dichotomous forms. Here's one whose anxiety imploded; here's one whose anxiety exploded. This goes back to the question of gendered poetics. Fragments and polyphonies—perhaps you can see the great gathering of power in Dickinson's hesitations and pauses, or perhaps you see matters of gender more in subject matter than in any stylistic matter for these two writers. They both incorporate masculine and feminine, and this becomes a form of dialectical vision in Emily's references to the female speaker as a boy or a man, as well as Queen of Calvary and in Walt's bisexual love poems. Their split identities come out of working within a canon of their own time that would lock her out and only haltingly accept him.
This question of gendering is frequently undertaken as part of a political reading of a given poet's work. How do you think that poetry and politics intersect?
What do you mean by political? What aspect of political poetry interests you most?
I guess what I'm thinking about is when poetry attempts to engage specific issues that we usually associate with the public writ large, commentary on race, war, gender issues, economics, social justice. I realize that identity is frequently wrapped up with such discussions, but I also think that we can make some distinction between, say, the lyrical impulse of Millay and the poetry of witness of Forché.
That's a good question, and there are several ways into it. Often the language subverts intention, and when poets take it as a specific challenge to do as you describe, to try for a kind of poetry that addresses social issues, such as the kind that focuses on the present environmental crisis, and so forth, the poem has its own idea of what it wants to do and it cannot exist without its own ethics. In Loose Sugar, I meant to write a book on the imaginary substance of time, using experimental forms, and I or it had to take into account the senselessness of the Gulf War and gasoline love while I was writing it. Having thought about matter as entrapment for the Gnostics, I was thinking about the will of the body and sex and the beginning of time as a freeing thing, and suddenly, a really idiotic war happened, which put my students' bodies at risk. It began to seem that my inquiry sometimes had to be bound up with political and social issues. The kind of commentary you refer to—making political statements—is very hard to do in poetry without falling into terrible cliché or smugness. What seemed most drastic about the eighties was how scary Reaganomics was, or were, and the figures of Reagan and Bush. Those jokes about Reagan turning off his hearing aid in meetings, that sort of thing. The Contra deal—my god. The eighties, in one way, had been a batch of hideous ironies. I wrote about it in a little poem called "No Problem," which is a rather heavy-handed item. Thinking about forms of identity and how nationalism was invented to wreck male bodies made me sick. Thinking about gasoline made me think about mixtures of things from under the earth, which made me think of alchemy, which was also what my interest in Gnosticism had led me to, and the Gulf War led to thinking about nationalism and my childhood experience of Post-colonialism in Brasil, loss of language and remaking the mother tongue, and it all wound up together! I found that the political interests could not be separated from the rest of it when writing that book.
That gives us insight into Loose Sugar. Some people have identified the act of writing poetry in our age as a political act—because it goes so in the face of economic, social and various political agendas. Do you agree with such a sentiment? Or, to get at the question a different way, are the personal and political always intertwined?
The political and the personal are mostly intertwined, if you believe in the personal. Some people's hopes for making writing more political comes from the guilt about the uselessness of art among people who are trying to write poetry in this country, especially young poets who are under pressure to do something useful with their M.F.A.s and who feel guilty for sitting around writing poetry because they were told it is a sort of useless thing to do. And in a way, all art is useless. But original language engages us in moral difficulties. It makes us hear words past the cliché; it takes apart the world and relanguages it in the process. My poems are difficult and full of weird devices. They aren't going to be too useful to enact social change. I read at a couple of Gulf War protests and thought about the limitations of polemics.
Is there any way to avoid compromising one's aesthetic while writing such poetry? Subtlety and political poetry don't seem to go together too well.
Much political poetry is terribly polemical. Yeats might be a good example of someone who achieved grandeur and beauty without always being subtle, but I find "A terrible beauty is born" a true and powerful statement about revolution. Irony is almost never subtle, and in political poetry it is nearly always a second rate tool. I'm obsessed by several things right now as a writer besides the main thing of "how does language embody reality and how can I get there?" One of them is syntax: the relationship between the phrase or the sentence and the line, how something comes to represent in broken or fragmentary writing. I had been reading a lot of writing by thinkers such as Irigaray and Cixous, and I began thinking about this more in Loose Sugar, the unsettledness of primary thought in a first language as the key to a sort of spatial imagining. My mom's first language was Portuguese, and we lived in Brasil for a few years when I was a child. I felt her language leaving her body as a perceived absence or silence, especially as I also had a caretaker who spoke only in Portuguese. Later in memory, I heard this as a deranged syntax that also reflected the child's confusion over the spirit-states and the mess of the fifties in Brasil.
Syntactical ruptures that are subversive.
That reflect the [f——ked-upness] of a socioeconomic time. The only way writers can protest is through language.
Giving up on—and this connects back to Ma Dickinson and Pa Whitman—the false lineages, these false continuities, and realizing what a mess it all is.
To see how broken something is, to reflect that accurately, can be a political act. And an act of survival—getting through the day. How to get out of the deadness with deep enough feeling to survive with pleasure. I sometimes think sentences have to be screwed up in exactly the same way as we've screwed up the weather. So the multivalence of the sentence can reflect the vanishing ozone layer. Right now I'm working on poems about the way dirt breaks as we break inside—dirt, dioxin, and desire.
Meaning, or so-called meaning. Meaning and how it gets here, in a completely mysterious universe, and the search for its language. What to do about meaning, meaning as the by-product of the general buzz, like ah-ha, the surprise chamber that is the arbitrariness of signs but that produces depth soundings anyway. This is very tied up with questions about whether and how each word refers to its thing, and its sign-force-system activity. I'm not sure whether I can ever disconnect the quest for meaning or reference from metaphysical issues in my own poetry, or that I want to stop a search for it—but that is, oddly, not an essentialist quest but an existentialist one. Meaning not as something that gets through but something that I will never understand but that is, no matter what, reverberating in the labyrinth of each word so that knowing it gives power in each of the tiniest motions. When we go down into the mystery of the word, what starts there? What is an experience within and outside of a line of poetry that presents it? That's what I want to know. There's a disequilibrium between the consciousness of a poet and "it" that torments us. The whole question has a lot to do with the interest in odd syntaxes. Just as it's interesting to think about the soul in the afterlife, the geographical position of it, it's interesting to consider whether meaning is embodied in syntax. It's certain that meaning does not come through language as light comes "through" a window.
It's tied up with that, but more particular—the kind of magic and suffering of each moment of human consciousness in the search. I'm sort of thinking of the three layers of human existence here, for the Gnostics, the body or material, the pneuma or spirit and the psyche/soul. Individual approaches to the problems of fear and suffering and inexplicable joy interest me very much. And the question of what an experience is can never be an aesthetic or philosophical question only. I teach at many writers' conferences, and people bring poems that are moving, heart-wrenching depictions of lives, and sometimes there's only a little good writing, so I say, your job is to let that experience meet its excellent and memorable language, to respect and love words so you honor them by using them with magic and consciousness. People think they're stuck in their plot, in what happened to them. What happens to you is beyond your plot, your own narrative or nature, so your poem is an object that transcends its singular use, it strips the ego out of you. What happens to you is the moment of the poem, of the seam/seem between your noticing and building; it is not necessarily in your autobiographical data, but it is much more deeply the soul of experience in language. What speaks when we speak, or cries when we cry? An individual consciousness has its own inscape, to use Hopkins' term, and it resonates with other energy that is absolute, even if God is metaphor. In poetry, we take the best of what we know from individual experience, deepening it with the collective consciousness, and mostly we think of that as the soul. I guess the soul's my favorite metaphor because the other term of it will never be known, the thing on the other side of the equal sign. That's why the mystery traditions are interesting—they were looking for it.
Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. If poetry is so valuable in exploring this realm of God and soul, then it seems to me that accessibility would be paramount. If the message is so important, one would want to get it out there. In the twentieth century, though, many American poets have chosen the other route—of difficulty.
I question the term "accessible." A poet's job is to put forth the best of the movements of her or his consciousness, by which I mean, the shapeliest dreams. Sometimes—or often—dreams are not straightforward or continuous. When the travelers consult the oracle in classical literatures, there is much indirection. A lot of meditative poetry is abstract and doesn't tell stories or is hallucinatory and has inaccessible imagery. Much that is great poetry might speak to fewer people rather than many. Lots of students ask, "How hard are we supposed to work on understanding this stuff?" But really it's nearly impossible for Americans to fight through sentimental impulses to feel the awe of most amazing poetry. In the visual arts, people are willing to experience a large degree of abstraction—with Kandinsky, with Rothko, with Pollack. Less so with poetry. Challenging and abstract language may be necessary for the human spirit, but people may not get to our most difficult writing—it takes more time to read, for one thing, so teachers would rather teach crappy poetry than great work. In a way I don't blame them, because you have to go slowly, to make a case for challenging work.
Judgments along the lines of "best" or "poor"—"good" or "crappy"—aren't exactly de rigueur of academic criticism these days. Many take umbrage at such distinctions. Why are you so confident in asserting such distinctions? What does a great poem have that a crappy poem does not?
Let's take the opposite of Dickinson's saying about the top of her head coming off, let's think of the between-the-legs feeling going inside. Whatever makes you want to have that energy and feel it erotically within and with another listener. When I discover something that's magical in language, my impulse is to put it in my journal so I can blend with it while writing it, admiring it all the while. The mergey feeling, when you are sexually in love and want to rub yourself with it. Of course it's good to make really strong distinctions between what excellent or amazing writing is and what not-excellent or terrible writing is. I'm very demanding on my own work and often write dozens of drafts by hand. Superlatives are another issue—I'm loathe to say "best" or "most" or "greatest" because poetry is not like a chevron of geese with one little goose out front.
You're articulating the feeling that overcomes you when you encounter greatness in poetry, but can you talk more distinctly about the attributes of the work?
There are lots of poems we come to love because we are told they're great poems and we get educated into seeing how the little machine works, and that brings forth a feeling in us. It takes years to understand a poem you love. I still turn to poetry the way I turned to it when I was a child, because it does something for me nothing else can; it assuages the loneliness or terror of being alive in a language that can't be put in any other way. Sometimes it works with flame and sometimes with water. "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." The line can only be like that. What is a formal feeling? Such intense poetry makes me feel an energy that is common to all minds, and a beauty that will save us, I believe, absolutely, but only for moments at a time. So when I read through magazines or new books that come to us—we get sometimes ten new books a week at our house—mostly I'm looking for a moment of vision and originality of language. Some surprise that has to do with authenticity of the soul having invented something in original diction or metaphor, that has a set of shifts that take us from philosophical or even metaphysical concepts or abstractions into the stuff, the physical solid matter, or the quotidian, and back again really fast. That's the kind of thing I like. The magic poems that are beautiful—phrase oriented, that experience the textures of language and make love in the smallest phrase. The imagination that finds embodiment in many ways, through weird syntax, through metaphor, through conflation of idea and image. A way of refreshing things so that they're not familiar. The style doesn't have to resemble mine. For example, I like Stein and Bishop probably equally.
Your exploration of alchemy and Gnosticism connects to poetry as being able to usher in the spiritual and otherness that is larger than we are. The mystical-visionary tradition as articulated in poetry is compelling. Do you think that poetry has a connection to the spiritual that the other arts do not?
No. I think all arts have connection to the spiritual. But I don't know what it's like to be another kind of artist; it's like asking me to become a porcupine. Maybe it is more fun. I love watching pop musicians on music videos, and dancers, but if you asked me whether I'd rather be one, I would say no, not just because my love affair with poetry is pretty satisfying but because it interests me slightly more that poems are the best version of our most common thing, which is ordinary language. If, when we went into the 7–11 for Trident, we hummed or danced to the cashier instead of saying "thanks," things might be different. I experience poetry as the coolest form of muttering to the cashier or to yourself in the 7–11. But that also makes it tough on poetry because we use the commonest tool for it.
That's an important distinction. Poetry uses language, which has so much connection to all our other interactions. A more intense usage but the same medium. The other arts are distinct. For instance, music's nonreferentiality puts it in a completely different category.
It certainly is. But then there's the whole thing I was talking about earlier—how reference works, and the degrees of referentiality, and theories of this—the work of Hejinian, for example, that owes a lot to Gertrude Stein's various musics, and other Language poetry. What would it be like to have your main form of expression be wordless? What is it like to be a dancer, to put it out there and to have no residue? That's a pure thing, the mystical tree. Yet it seems so lucky to have poetry as an important task. It's one thing that interested me about Gnosticism—the fact that meaning and experience and language are coterminous in the place of knowing; Gnostics were all involved with secret passwords to get you to the next level, that kind of thing. I use trance work and hypnosis a lot for composition. Much of what's in Bright Existence and Death Tractates came out of hypnosis; then I shaped the meditations into poems. I'm not that keen on languageless meditation, to be honest. I like meditations that hold the word as a talisman. I hate the thought that whatever is the mystical ultimate does-n't have language in it. I want the afterlife to be a Berkeley café with a sort of slow composition of poetry, lovers dismantling pieces of slightly stale bagel while trying to say difficult, true things to each other while the kid in the corner listens to the Pixies in a headset.
Would you describe yourself as a dualist?
I don't know any more. I used to think, "Yes, for sure I'm a dualist," but now I'm of two minds about whether I'm a dualist or not. We used to take poetry books to war protest sit-ins; when they arrested us at the ROTC building, I was reading—like, O.K. better to assume it's useless and improve your mind while they haul your ass out of there. Living in Berkeley, you get a lot of "it's all one." Well, I'm sort of "we're all several," but it's the same several every time I reflect on it, so, actually, I think I'm not a dualist after all, I think I may be an animist because I talk to rocks and stuff. But while you're talking about it, you talk about the talking about it.
Isn't that quality reflected in the formal aspects of your recent poetry? You've mentioned the syntax and such, but the use of the page seems equally relevant. The use of subtexts and pretexts, so to speak, as a sort of running commentary that is connected to but not part of the poems.
The little commentaries between pages are just little blips in consciousness like the cracks in the universe at the start of time. There's the extra stuff at the bottom of "blue codices." The extra elements on the page came from the idea of letting the margins relax. I got interested in alchemy in the early nineties; alchemists were trying very hard, you know, to make one thing out of another. I was thinking about Jung's writing about depression. The alchemists seem to me quintessentially hopeful. Marginalia would come forward on my page, the little penciled scratches, in a kind of hopeful way. I had been dealing with a pervasive depression that seemed sort of redemptive, where it's all hopeless but interesting, many shades of blackness. I am visited by that often, then it passes. Voices impinge from outside. In drafting Death Tractates, I had scooped the derangements into the verse, made the little exceptions into parts of the poem. But with the poems in Loose Sugar, I decided to put them there by themselves, just let them linger. Marginalia at the bottom that won't be reused. Little comments or images. This idea of having the ash at the bottom of the page came from considering the alchemist's furnace. It falls out and stays there and the phoenix rises from it.
Like in your recent poem "A Geology."
Yeah, though those are somewhat different. I thought of those corner words as "signal words," a kind of assignment of what to use on each page. Rather than as ash or leavings, I thought of them as wordseeds, like sticking your seed packet for melons on a little stake in the dirt: here's what I started with. I was trying to work them in and thus give the rather wild poem a sense of internalized necessity or fate. I'm interested in using the whole page as a different way of inventing. I got this by reusing a lot of spatial soup stock from Mallarmé. Also from my reading group—we were reading work by the Oulipo group in France; I had always been interested in secret measuring devices, secret ways of counting, etc. I became interested in working with constraint and measure even as whatever is free about free verse continues to be engaging. Constraint as freedom and freedom within constraint. Setting little goals—not traditional metrics or rhyme, but little secret formal assignments to see if I could achieve them while the soul worked on its group wildness.
And could you apply these notions to the formal dimensions of the poem?
In different ways, and certainly not in a way that would restrict the activity of the poem, if it turned out that the interesting path was another way. Like, you can get started with thinking about numbers of lines. The twelve-line poem had been of interest. The business of having secret assignments connects with the alchemical poems in Loose Sugar, and in the title sequence at the end—there would be this little phrase at the top of the page that would kick off the poem. Then I drew a line after that phrase—a sort of mirror that doesn't necessarily happen in real life. The words that you get before you get the title are like the things that happen in a room before you enter; they are part of the form, part of the shape, if only we could hear more purely. I discovered in Death Tractates that what is most interesting about inner forms of abstract meditation is straining to hear the conversation that is going on whether you're in it or not. You're always in a fragile relationship to a fragmentary conversation.
In Loose Sugar, we find Chevron Tankers, Star Trek, the discovery of sexuality, Woolworth's, as well as many disparate presences. I find that fascinating because I don't think that there are many contemporary poets who are willing to gather in so many different aspects of the world. Is this assimilation reflective of your attitude toward poetics at this point in American literary history?
What Do I Read Next?
- In "Air for Mercury," Hillman depicts a society that mourns the loss of its religious faith. In Death Tractates (1992), Hillman explores the issues of loss and separation in general. Hillman wrote these poems after losing a very close friend of hers.
- In "Air for Mercury," society becomes more chaotic as people lose religious faith. On a similar note, Hillman's Fortress (1989) depicts people that struggle with many issues, including the question of art, economic problems, and failure.
- Like Cascadia, Hillman's Loose Sugar (1997) includes poems that examine an aspect of time. Unlike Cascadia, however, which focuses on time and change, Loose Sugar focuses on time's role in language and comprehension. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
- John McPhee's modern classic Assembling California (1993) takes readers on a journey with McPhee and geologist Eldridge Moores. Along the way, he explores the state's geological controversies and tectonic plate movement in an engaging, narrative style.
- One of California's most celebrated writers, John Steinbeck was known for his regional literature. In The Long Valley (1938), a collection of short stories, Steinbeck offers several profiles of the state's people, many of whom were immigrant farm workers that came to California seeking better times and who faced loss and heartache in the unforgiving environment.
My poetics, this mixing of levels and tones and subjects, reflect a messy soul looking at a messy, amazing world. So poetry makes shapes of the mess. There's a line in "Thicket Group": "You have changed the assignment to Swirl." I don't know about literary history; the world needs many different types of poetry. I began to think we have to write poetry we need to read more than poetry that we need to write. Anyway, I started putting that stuff in my poetry in the early eighties. How could you not put Star Trek and . . .
I love the Pixies. I like that kind of music very much. I was away from music for a little and suddenly kids were drumming in my basement and I was raising a couple of punk rock kids. I like that sort of music. I like television very much also if I don't need to be looking at it. I have to say I haven't liked movies too much, but a little while ago, I started liking them better. I'm very happy about that.
What movie turned the tide?
I think it might have been Woman in the Dunes. It was a tough time in my life and it became one of my top movies. I think maybe my favorite movies have sand in them. But I'm not quite used to movies; I'm still getting used them. It is hard just to stare straight ahead and attend to their dominating power. I used to be terrified of them. You were stuck in the dark with everyone even if you wanted to leave. I prefer almost all television to movies, especially any sort of sports or game show. Culture makes it into poems no matter what—supermarkets, music, going to the library, TV, driving, rats in garbage cans.
How do you balance this interest in culture with your attraction to a more spiritually-driven poetry? Eliot's Waste Land versus Four Quartets might be an interesting lens through which to look at this question.
I think it's all mixed in together. Eliot is surely a great artist, though I go through periods of being sick of him. If only he had heard Blonde on Blonde. For Modernists, I actually prefer Stevens and Williams at the moment, though Eliot was my first love. He actually didn't go forward in Four Quartets,he went sideways. The Waste Land was the great derangement, the great rearrangement. Lowell and many poets came out of the inner lining of the coat of that poem, what Eliot didn't want to tell us about the anguish of his individual life but somehow included it anyway. I'm more interested in the fragmented-falling-apart-generalized-speakingness of that poem. He's the one who showed us about all kinds of culture entering poetry—often seems to have to do with irony, with the ironic distance one needs in order to see a thing. Of course, we can have many flavors of ironists—I think of Rae Armantrout taking a close ironic look at southern California in her succinct poems. It's obvious to note that we don't have to balance spiritual interests with culture because they're all tangled up together.
Is it difficult to be hopeful about the significance of your work or about poetry in general?
Well, it's easy to be confident about the need for poetry in the culture, and I love the activity of struggling to write it, though mostly it comes from a difficulty of expression, from wrestling with the dread of nature and mind-boggling difficulties of being alive. I'm glad to be a poet in this time. On the other hand, it is hard not to feel crushed by how little your average person cares about it, and, of course, I'm grateful to have an audience and glad when people write letters out of the blue. Some people have a very specific set of readers but it's different with my work, and the audience is continually refreshing itself. There's this magazine in the Bay Area called Rooms that began as a collective, editorless text some years ago; the founders of it had the idea of asking about fifty of us who were interested in innovative work and experiment to start sending fifty copies of one of our pieces in progress. They would bind it and mail it back out to us. There's no editor; there are several collators who bind it and mail it back to us. People send all kinds of poems in, Xeroxed on all kinds of paper, with illustrations. It's a beautiful thing.
How does a project like this connect to your assertions about "the best" work?
Well, I don't think magazines can possibly present only the best work. Some of it is uneven or is in draft form, and some is excellent writing. I sent one poem which I had written fifty times in pencil because I felt phobic about typing it.
You're mentioning this as a reason for hope, this nonacademic sort of venture that's connected to getting poetry out there.
Getting poetry introduced in the culture. Sometimes exploratory poetry is associated with academic life and sometimes not. "Language" poetry has been heavily associated with theory and conferences, which isn't always a bad thing. It has meant that some of that work is presented only in narrow areas. I'm glad that much of what is adventurous in contemporary poetry is becoming less ghettoized now. Rooms may be also a very limited format, but it is the kind of publishing any group of people could do—to get their work disseminated. It's a sort of anticompetition mechanism. Trying to exchange texts with a greater ease. So that's one way to do it. I think the good old Xerox machine is the best, getting your work into the hands of friends. Not just books and magazines, individual poems. I think those of us who teach need to teach cross-reading, to read across aesthetic boundaries, so that what is exciting isn't just a narrow sense of avant-garde or experimental writing, but crosses and remixes the categories. Students can get a good idea of what's being done in the art at any one time. It's very discouraging that so much good writing becomes balkanized because of territoriality and specialized claims. I taught a course at Iowa in which I used the poetry of fourteen women writers—among them Guest, McHugh, Glück, Susan Howe, Olds, lots of others. Not everyone liked everything, of course. I think things are changing because of a greater acceptance of variety and I feel pretty committed to this as a teacher.
A desire to enlarge the canon, enlarge the texts?
So that there's a range of what's possible, and that's a cause for hopefulness.
Source: Tod Marshall, "Brenda Hillman," in Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, Eastern Washington University Press, 2002, pp. 68–87.
In the following review of "Cascadia," Ratner calls Hillman "a mature poet taking more risks with each successive volume."
In Hillman's sixth collection, readers encounter a mature poet taking more risks with each successive volume. On a smaller scale, but with no less intensity, she does for her adopted state of California what Charles Olson did for the small town of Gloucester. In the opening poem, she gives herself a directive that will carry her through the rest of the volume, and readers would do well to heed it: "Easy on the myths now / Make it up." Her tri-fold exploration encompasses geography, spirituality, and work, and she uses history to uncover a self that can be of use in this rapidly usurped environment. Thus, California's numerous missions provide a grounding in religion, while Hillman's meditations on landscape are prayerlike. But she does not overlook the state's dreaded aspects—El Nino, earthquakes, the eroding coastline, the hopes of gold that ignited the dreams of so many, and the dioxins humans have inserted into the atmosphere. In these circumstances, words take on weight, so that naming is building. As in Hillman's previous work, technical innovations are as important as the subjects she chooses, though some of the purely typographical aspects seem a bit superfluous. Hillman's previous volume, Loose Sugar, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Not for the casual poetry reader, Cascadia is nevertheless highly recommended.
Source: Rochelle Ratner, Review of Cascadia, in Library Journal, Vol. 126, No. 18, November 1, 2001, p. 98.
Arnold, Kevin, "The Only Constant Is the Page Number: Brenda Hillman's Cascadia," in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2003.
Hillman, Brenda, "Air for Mercury," in Cascadia, Wesleyan University Press, 2001, pp. 29–31.
—, "Brenda Hillman on Her New Volume of Poetry, Cascadia," exclusive online interview in Poets & Writers, http://www.pw.org/mag/dq_hillman.htm, posted August 30, 2001.
Ratner, Rochelle, Review of Cascadia, in Library Journal, Vol. 126, No. 18, November 1, 2001, p. 98.
Review of Cascadia, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 248, No. 32, August 6, 2001, p. 86.
Review of Cascadia, in Tikkun, Vol. 18, No. 3, May–June 2003, p. 96.
Barr, Stephen M., Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.
While modern science is often used to disprove the idea of religious faith, Barr takes the unusual approach of using science to support this idea. His accessible book follows the concept that scientific disciplines such as quantum physics make more sense if one believes in a divine creator.
Berry, Matt, Post-Atheism: A Mechanist's Journey from Christian Materialism to Material Spirituality, 1st Books Library, 2001.
In its wide-ranging discussion of religion, Hillman's poem touches on the relationship between spirituality and things in modern society. In Berry's book, he proposes a post-atheistic type of spirituality that is also materialistic in nature.
Bolton, Lesley, The Everything Classical Mythology Book: Greek and Roman Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Monsters, from Ares to Zeus, Adams Media Corporation, 2002.
In Hillman's poem, she references the Roman god Mercury and refers to other classical texts from this era. In this book, Bolton gives a thorough overview of all of the major deities and supernatural beings in the classical world.
Harden, Deborah, California Geology, Prentice Hall, 1997.
Written for non-geologists, Harden's book serves as a good introduction to California's geology. Using the state's plate tectonics as an organizing theme, the book also discusses natural disasters, California's history, and the impact of geologic processes on society.