Geoffrey G. O’Brien
This piece is about 30 printed pages long.
It is copyright © the contributors and Jacket magazine 2007.
The generic convention of the book review is monologic; however nuanced and subtle, the constraints of the form typically allow the inclusion of only one perspective. This collection of short texts on the poems in Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic intends first, to present a kind of collective ‘book review,’ that is, a form of writing about poems that demands a plurality of individual voices; and second, to provide a forum in which poets respond to and explore a particular poem.
Pieces of Air in the Epic, the second book of a tetralogy about the classic elements of life–earth, air, water, fire–particularly invites such collectivity. Its title metaphorizes the collision of nature, typified by ‘air’ and culture, the genre of ‘the epic,’ but subverts this opposition by emphasizing the texture, fragility, and plurality of ‘pieces.’ Hillman’s book takes as its lyric/epic subject the diversities of voice, addresses pluralities that are at once political and personal, braids sociality and selves. The goal of this collection, then, is to present a mode of critical response that is as various as the text it encounters.
To this end, contributors were invited to write a short ‘piece’ about a poem of her/his choice in a style of his/her choice. To maximize and preserve the specificity of each response, I have not regularized formats, titles, or the citations of Brenda Hillman’s name. The contributions are arranged in the order in which the poems appear. The collection begins with the statement Marjorie Welish wrote when she selected it as the winner of ‘The William Carlos Williams Award,’ and concludes with a poem by Michael Palmer about the title, Pieces of Air in the Epic.
Barbara Claire Freeman is a poet and critic who teaches in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley. Her book The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction was published by the University of California Press, and her poems can be found in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Boston Review, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, and New American Writing, among other magazines.
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As advertised, Pieces of Air in the Epic takes much inspiration from the second element of cosmological imagination, for in this book of poems the element of air is not only a theme but a measure of prosody, not only a measure but an intervention in the poetic line that shapes words and disturbs the sentence. With tactical scruple, Brenda Hillman chooses the apt approach to construct a poem of document and lyric, testing one against the other. Textual sampling and collage, appearing in conjunction with a reimagining of fact through an ethical zone of anti-war activism, come to enrich and trouble poetic radiance.
Graced with Robert Duncan’s tutelary spirit, each poem that Hillman writes creates its own experimental configuration, within which the phrase swerves and discombobulates sense, as several registers of subject complicate the sampling of experiences and also as the experimental format throws the lyric into symbolic disarray one moment and naturalist scrutiny the next. And even more: she writes as if the lyric poem had a political calling.
Marjorie Welish has just returned from her Fulbright Fellowship at the Institute of English and American Studies, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University, Frankfurt-am-Main. Her books of poems include The Annotated ‘Here’ and Selected Poems (2000), Word Group (2004), and Isle of the Signatories (Spring 2008), all published by Coffee House Press.
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A street corner is nowhere and no one where. I might disappear around a street corner; then again, you and I could meet where two streets do the same. The ‘I’ in the first sentence of Brenda Hillman’s ‘Street Corner’ appears in the poem’s second line and never comes back; the subject of the poem’s second sentence–and of every sentence thereafter–is the pronoun ‘We.’ In this poem named for the place where two streets become–for some time, some distance– the same space, a singularity turns plural. Maybe it’s more correct, then, to say that the ‘I’ in ‘Street Corner’ does in fact remain, but that it only manages to do so by changing into something else, something multiple.
I (or We) could say that the poem is spoken by some word, perhaps any word. This seems a reasonable guess at what ‘a knowing / brick tradesmen engineered for / blunt or close recall’ or ‘meanings’ that are ‘soundly there’ or ‘spare dreams of / citizens where abstraction and / the real could merge’ might be.
On the way to its fusion with the speaking that makes it ‘We,’ the speaking/spoken word speaks in and of mixture, of confusion: ‘second terror’ sounds almost exactly like ‘second error’; ‘the peppermint / noise of sparrows’ is synesthetic.
When I becomes We, we find more of the same. We see the past in the future, the ordinary in the strange, decisiveness in uncertainty:
We had crossed the
red forest; we had
recognized a weird lodge.
We could have said
song outlasts poetry; words
are breath bricks to
support the guardless singing
project. We could have
meant song outlasts poetry.
A forest is (to my ear’s mind) spoken of as if it were an ocean; the unfamiliar is somehow recognized; the plural speaker knows what s/he might have said or what s/he was able to say but didn’t (and then, perhaps, what s/he said but only what s/he might have meant).
I’ve heard it said that sounds don’t end, that somewhere on their asymptotic route to near-nothingness, they simply become too quiet for us to hear. Say–or sing–a poem, then, and it’s forever, forever together with every other silent sound. There are numberless terrors in this; there could certainly be error. What happens when the poem, disappearing around some unseen sonic corner, joins the collective without you? What then? Now where?
Graham Foust is the author of three books of poems, including Necessary Stranger (Flood Editions, 2007). He lives in Oakland, California.
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The poem fulfills its title’s promise beautifully, through its visual style, the distance it covers between sentences, its references to epics, its conscious orality, and all the language it uses evoking winds. Written not in, but across, two columns, the poem airs out the epic in the lines on the right-hand side, which are double-spaced, outnumbered two to one by those on the left. As every other line whips over the invisible barrier that runs down the center of each page, we begin to test a genealogical logic: the lyric is to the epic as breath is to breadth? But no–or not simply that. There is already air in the epic and people’s lives depended upon it. (Ask Iphigenia.) As it was in the time of Troy, so it is today. Industry and technology have outmoded the Greeks’ boats (and their limp or uncontrollably erect sails) and given us tank-like SUVs that, far from relying upon the winds, are largely impervious to them. However, these modern vehicles bear witness to the ancient epics in their names (‘Caravan or Quest’); and, also ironically, the products of ‘progress’ have made us no less impatient now than Agamemnon was then. Our leaders are still full of the hot air that creates wind. Hillman writes a poem we must read aloud: we need to breathe through the words, especially the w’s of ‘weather’ and ‘war,’ the h’s of ‘holes’ and ‘hunger,’ the o’s of ‘omens’ and ‘oracle.’ Inspired, she whisks us from image to idea in a resonant critique of America’s current military fiasco, in which we have foolishly opened a sack full of blustery destruction–like Odysseus’s crew, knowing better, but lusting for gold.
Evie Shockley is the author of a half-red sea (2006) and The Gorgon Goddess (2001), both published by Carolina Wren Press. She is a Cave Canem graduate fellow, the recipient of a residency from the Hedgebrook retreat for women writers, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Shockley teaches African American literature and creative writing at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.
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‘Air in the Epic’ makes an oracular sweep through the multitude of subtle shifts in Hillman’s attention and ‘side stories leaked into the epic/told by its lover, the world.’ She issues an acrobatically suspended exhale of poetry in the somnolent classroom. Her charges are swept through structural changes in lineation, global climate, cultural registers across time, and the impending sacrifice of Iphigenia. Lines are pulled out of the body proper to ventilate the course of thought along the scruff of her imagination. Centuries pass in a classroom hour. A rest is measured in the space between a dump truck’s beeps. A gentle breeze is tailed by a hare. The reader takes her finger off the pause button, and puts her ear to what follows. Thus and thus the poet exhales in a soaring meditation and an elegantly hard composition, a swift glimpse of the whole.
C.D. Wright’s most recent title is One Big Self: An Investigation. She is on the faculty at Brown University and lives outside of Providence.
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Hillman’s unique poetic architectures are integral to her poems, and often (as in the title sequences of Cascadia and Loose Sugar) they are very elaborate. Here, in ‘Green Pants & Bamboo Flute,’ the title immediately sets into relation two elements, and almost every subsequent line does the same (not always as twin nouns). The notable exceptions are where Hillman’s hallmark, quirky semantic shifts, often launched by sequential modifiers–‘pointed salty star materials,’ ‘cute little names,’ or ‘his pretty floating rib’–quicken the syntactical movement and slide the register upward. As we see in our first glance at the page, the poem’s stanzas themselves are coupled, but the two stanzaic pairs map out a relationship that is perhaps even more temporal than textual. To wit, the upper left stanza unfolds in PRESENT tense. The upper right stanza overlays references to ‘Today’ and ‘Now’ with specific allusions to the FUTURE. Other words in the stanza, ‘want’ and ‘bride’ for instance, are also future-oriented. The lower left stanza invokes with its first word, ‘Earlier,’ its reference to a myth of origin, and its image of a ‘webbed arch of caravans’ (which a North American reader might situate in our historical Westward Ho!) the PAST. But if we read into the construction of the poem a loose indication of Present, Future, and Past in three stanzas, how do we consider the fourth stanza, the shortest one? Ah look: that’s where ‘fate’ and the ‘clock’s/ Ring’ mete out the time, joining it ‘in the @ of each address’ to its events. Wonderful. Read this way, the poem is a secret history of eternal recurrence. (And it is terrible, considering the recurring allusions to violence and war). Still, the full impact of Hillman’s poems arise from the relationship between larger structural patterns and smaller, more spidery ones. For instance, we quickly find that each stanza weaves together natural, technological, and philo-theosophical terms. And each stanza bares a black hourglass: poison, death planes, darktricity, doom, shroud, desert horror, grenades, etc. The spin of material, tone, and reference is not unlike ‘the spin in the @ of each address’. But Hillman’s lexicon is loaded here. On the one hand, ‘address’ locates each reader, each atrocity, each thing. But at the same time, ‘address’ designates the speaking voice of ‘particle spirits,’ that resident chorus in Hillman’s expressively animistic universe who so often address the reader. By reinterpreting objectivity as intersubjectivity, hierarchy as holism, Hillman’s poems unhinge and reorient us. The tonal register in her recent poems is often a harmonic of keening, outrage, and palpable exuberance. ‘Green Pants & Bamboo Flute’ inspires me into an attentive listening, as though all my cells were ears.
Forrest Gander is a writer who lives outside all Providence.
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‘Waves past the meadow’–flavor of Duncan’s returned-to meadow, a place (if not made) where blown grass (in concert) ripples (or has rippled: the ‘go,’ ‘going’ or ‘gone,’ elided), each blade a little), too. ‘Doppler Effect in Diagram Three’–presumably after a science illustration where arced lines denote sound waves–is, like the Doppler effect, sensitive to approach and departure (wave hello, goodbye): ‘Someone swell to be remembered’; ‘Families just beginning to gather’; ‘In the pulling away life is continuous.’ Lack of punctuation provides plenty of syntactical oscillation, especially from line to line, as do multi-function words: ‘straight,’ ‘borders,’ ‘swell,’ ‘gather,’ ‘inflected.’ The poem also provides a giddiness of illustrations, namings and puns (verbal and visual) for kinds of waves and their representation. Named arcs (‘parentheses from the hawk a day sound’), described arcs (‘a row of bending sounds / As the trouble curves rightward’) and implied arcs (‘double gather like curtains’; ‘its skirts of sound’) become–at a high point– themselves: ‘& how does the ( ( ( ( ( ( (( do it.’ ((!), as one would say in chess notation.)
‘How do airwaves get through all the numbers / ‘& how does the ( ( ( ( ( ( (( do it’; ‘The heat sing-ing-ing’ (play on root word and gerund, heat aura and ‘singe’); ‘It’s up to sounds like this to descend in size / To express surprise or terror’–with just a hint of sirens (should I pull over?), everything (including nature, the laws of nature, then even sentences: ‘The sentence has started its journey’) is personified and filling its function quite responsibly. The ‘observer...on the platform’ in the science model, too: ‘& we grow [swell :) ] to love him.’ How does he, how do they, how does the poet, do it? We are full of admiration.
‘Waves past the meadow, meu viajante’–all the while, an addressed one (Portuguese, ‘my traveler’...one ‘of those / Who have not stopped & may not, ever’?): nearing… or not?
Carol Snow is the author of Artist and Model, For, and The Seventy Prepositions, the first a National Poetry Series selection and the latter two in the New California Poetry Series from University of California Press. Snow’s work is forthcoming in two new anthologies: Lyric Postmodernisms (Counterpath Press) and American Hybrid (Norton); her recently completed manuscript is Placed — Karesansui.
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Between church bells
I held its breath:
the poem begins. That colon is there, I imagine, because the sound of the bells, the sound carried on air, or its after-sound, only dies away when the poem ends. The somewhat confusing ‘its’ is there because its implied referent, the godly air, is so great as to be unsayable until it is addressed a few moments later and because of the sort of synaesthetic confusion of the speaker who finds herself holding, or wanting to hold, the breath of the bells, plural, and their sound, singular.
I think of this luminous and mysterious little poem as an urban lyric and as a deft, brief, terrifying cosmology. Though I think I can account for most of its riddling details, I’m slightly afraid that what’s remarkable about it would be apt to vanish in the labor of an explication of the text. It haunts by its way of being on the outer verges of the sayable, as so many of the poems in this book do. It’s a poem one wants to have absorbed the details of and then to take in quickly, in all its lightness, as the airy double-spaced
Still: we are in a ‘great city,’ with ‘winds coming from corners,’ and ‘stable districts’ and couples courting in ‘a park.’ In another poem, ‘On Carmenstrasse,’ she is explicit about giving us Berlin, but not in this poem. This is a generalized myth-city, but not entirely generalized. It has ‘stable districts’ and more resonantly and haunting ‘lamps flickering in the stable districts’ which calls up 18th and 19th century cities, but this is at least a late 20th century city because its civility allows ‘zhivagoing solitudes.’ Allusion does that much work. It calls up, just faintly, Pasternak’s novel and history and terror and the private life of art.
(In Berlin, for the months that we lived there, it was our routine to work in the mornings, Brenda in our Garystrasse apartment among the birch trees and I in my office at the university; we ran for an hour in the Grünewald, came back, changed snacked, and then picked a neighborhood and walked the city until dark. Brenda was reading the letters of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno — written every few days, across town, by the two writers in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Benjamin seems to have moved often; the superscripted address on the letters kept changing and so there were quite number of Benjamin blocks, and neighborhoods, and apartments, to inspect. And Berlin was lovely in the spring. The winds came unimpeded from the Baltic hundreds of miles north and the air, in that shallow sandy valley, full of rivers and lakes, felt alive. If you were going to think about air, and I knew that was a project she had set herself, this was a place to do it. And then you never forgot what city you were in. Our walks circled and kept circling back to Scheunenviertel. We passed the canal where Rosa Luxemburg, having been interrogated, beaten, and shot, was thrown into the canal. We passed the place outside Humboldt University where students, in a fit of enthusiasm, made a bonfire of books. The city had commemorated that place and that moment by embedding a small plaque in the square and a mirror. One looked down and saw sky, clouds, saw the wind moving.)
Throughout Pieces of Air in the Epic wind is the first polity and the first epic — the first great poem of restless and ceaseless motion. It is the shared breath of the planet. ‘Allow us, mighty/ and bruised oxygen,’ the poem says. One of the book’s other persistent motifs is weaving. It is most explicit in ‘String Theory Sutra,’ where ‘by/ 1796 a thread stiff enough for// the warp of cotton fabric/ from the spinning frame, the spinning jenny,/ the spinning ‘mule’ or muslin wheel,//which wasn’t patented’ announces the industrial revolution, about which the poem remarks, ‘By its, I/ mean our, for we would become/ what we made.’ In ‘Wind Treaties,’ as in ‘String Theory Sutra,’ weaving is fate:
Allow us, mighty and
bruised oxygen. And I
imagined a black square
made of ariadne-thread
around the great city,
wind coming from corners
such that talking would
These are the two poles of the poem, I think, the warp and woof of it, and of the book: the great, free movement of the common air and the ariadne thread of fate. They account for other polarities in the poem, the one, for example, where ‘dread meets ecstasy’s skid-mark’ and the way the sound carries through the poem to its final lines which glimpses the ordinary life of cities and the ways in which they, and we, confer meaning:
Lamps flickering in the
stable districts. Symbolic weight
being added to bodies
walking in ordinary courtship
outfits, in a park.
Easy, as I say, to talk past the delicacy of this poem and its immensity. One of the things, I guess, that the experimental or post-modern lyric can do, when it suppresses or looks past the conventions of realism, is give you a city that sits somewhere between parable and symbol, in something of the way that Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire’s Paris does. This is in that way a Benjaminian lyric, a more than tentative celebration of the civility–argument, scholarship, the solitude of art–that can grow up somewhere between
dread and ecstasy:
such that talking would
never cease. Talking should
never cease, heads bent
over documents allowing
or zhivagoing solitudes, stitches
at the edges of
Robert Hass teaches English at the University of California at Berkeley. A book of his poems, Time and Materials, is forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins this fall.
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Pieces of Air in the Epic is filled with poems that deal, in some way, with wind, air, space, vacuity. ‘Altamont Pass’ continues the theme by invoking that site between the Central Valley of California and the San Francisco Bay region where giant turbines turn wind into power. This is the poem’s primary theme: the way that something is made out of nothing, money out of wind–but also epic out of air. In this poem the two forms of power create history, and the lyric poet, like many a romantic poet before her, tries to distinguish what is written on the wind from what is cast in stone. This always involves reading the Janus faced quality of words. Hillman asks for example:
Have you seen the monarchs
They left their stripes
Wind revises them as ravens
Gnostics in recovery
Here Hillman is the gnostic adept, reading against the grain to recover hidden knowledge in its traces–sustaining the butterfly’s golden geometry in royal authority (and punishment), butterfly in bird of ill omen.
Most of us of a certain generation associate Altamont Pass with the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at which a member of the audience was stabbed by a Hells Angels security guard. It signaled a fall from Grace, the expulsion of blissed out youth from Eden into the darker realities of the late Vietnam era. Hillman returns to that pass in a postlapsarian moment to ‘contact the spirit world’ lying just beyond the suburbs. She brings with her the spirits of other poets–George Oppen, Robert Duncan, Baudelaire, Goethe, Horace–to see beyond the ‘white spectacle’ of a commercial, suburban anonymity. She arrives at the pass via a series of prepositions (‘Outside the white spectacle / Of the mind’s blindness / In the black before last / Of the unplanned towns’) that move the reader steadily toward a view of those windmills: ‘the breeze turns and turns / Back of power’s face or / Should that be fate, o meu vento....’ I think here of the opening to George Oppen’s ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ which also invokes Altamont Pass, the young people on the way to the concert ‘Moving over the hills, crossing the irrigation / canals perfect and profuse in the mountains the / streams of women and men walking under the high- / tension wires over the brown hills.’ Hillman, like Oppen in the early 1970s, also sees the event in terms of electrical power and invokes the ‘high-/tension’ between natural resources and the city beyond. But Oppen, unlike Hillman, also records the tension within youth culture itself, an opium dream brought to a crisis in the Stones’ ‘Helter Skelter.’
Does power have a face or fate? Levinas suggests that the face of the other makes moral claims on us, makes us complicit in a fate over which we have no control. Judith Butler relates this face to that of Osama bin Laden around which our fate has been stage-managed for the past four years and which has provided ‘a rationale for our violence.’ What is morally binding ‘comes to me from elsewhere, unbidden, unexpected, and unplanned’ (Precarious Life). This poem seems to invoke that other imperative, ‘unbidden, unexpected, and unplanned,’ that is as ephemeral as air. Hillman’s face is less the reified face of power reflected in the ‘ministers of consequence/ [who] Make mostly demands’ but, rather, the language of natural forms–bees, birds, wind–that impose their own meanings and create, perhaps, a different fate. The seemingly errant movement of bees becomes a choreographed dance: ‘Pollen disguised as echo.’
These acts of gnostic re-reading remind me of another lyric poet who makes a cameo appearance in ‘Altamont Pass.’ In her third stanza Hillman transforms Robert Duncan’s ‘My mother would be a falconress, / And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist’ into ‘Our lover would be a sparrower and we his bright sparrow.’ Duncan’s invocation of the force (and fear) of female power becomes, in Hillman, a Thomistic response to male rage, raptor transformed into songbird. Yet Duncan’s faith in the errancy of the bee’s dance remains a tutelary spirit here.
A counter theme involves the tension between power-as-money (‘The ATM is jammed / Wind will rend the suburbs’) and the power of silence: ‘Silence is also everything / The silence part poetry, LW.’ Wittgenstein who, at the end of the Tractatus, resigns himself to the proposition that everything we can’t know must be passed over in silence. But Hillman’s silence is, of course, alive with buzzing, chirping, and fluttering wings. There’s another language of power, one written by the bees, encoded in the sparrow’s song, written, as they say, on the wind. Hillman sits on a hill, channeling the sounds of absence, the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Michael Davidson is professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century (Cambridge U Press, 1989), Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetery and the Material Word (U of California Press, 1997), and Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (U of Chicago, 2003). He is the editor of The New Collected Poems of George Oppen (New Directions, 2002). He is the author of eight books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Arcades (O Books, 1998). With Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, and Ron Silliman, he is the co-author of Leningrad (Mercury House Press, 1991). He has written extensively on disability issues, most recently ‘Hearing Things: The Scandal of Speech in Deaf Performance,’ in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, Ed. Sharon Snyder, et al (Modern Language Association, 2002), ‘Phantom Limbs: Film Noir and the Disabled Body, GLQ 9:1-2 (2003), and ‘Strange Blood: Hemophobia and the Unexplored Boundaries of Queer Nation,’ in Beyond the Boundary: Reconstructing Cultural Identity in a Multicultural Context, Ed. Timothy Powell (Rutgers U Press, 1999). His essays on disability have been collected into a book, Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body, forthcoming from University of Michigan Press.
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The most generous imaginations release us into origin, and I find such an original place in ‘Statueless Architecture.’ Here, what is nature is always next and such a happy fact allows children ‘unsupervised shadows.’ The next is a promontory, loci to past and to future, which is the nexus the poem engages. The lucky baby shadows, unburdened by authority, are a future teaching ‘last century’s fountains’ not to lie. The poem understands and has a cheerful sympathy for prior notions of construction in poems, in civilizations, those architectures, which propose unitary and unmoving frames. In such fixed identification, the poem avers, ‘something is built and avoided.’ Better to be nowhere, to be nobody, since the ‘infinity of form’ available in such dispossession makes a paradise of phenomena where disappointment disappears.
Claudia Keelan’s books include Utopic and The Devotion Field, both from Alice James Books. She teaches in the MFA International at the University of Nevada where she edits Interim (http://www.interimmag.org)
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Take five minutes; for five blessed minutes forget Enron, Halliburton, Cheney, Bush: forget ‘em although–forget ‘em because–the poem-sequence ‘The Corporate Number Rescue Album’ calls them out. But then forget too Walter Benjamin, Gretel Adorno, Comrade Pythagoras, summoned here as well. Why forget either side, both sides, in this epic’s agon? Because–unexpectedly, perfectly–the sequence turns from its third poem or section (‘Separate 7 With Its Bar of Personal Freedom’) to its fourth, final movement (‘Ethical 6’) via three words of dedication: FOR JOHN WIENERS. For John Wieners! Taut syntax’s fraying nerve threads twist’s delight, only to reveal itself as lyric’s hardly bearable, more-than-sublime oh no, lyric’s O: ‘O Poetry, visit this house often/imbue my life with success, leave me not alone...//...cure the hurts of wanting the impossible/through this suspended vacuum’ (Wieners, ‘Supplication’). ‘Separate 7 With Its Bar of Personal Freedom’ turns out to have begun not just by invoking the nerve of those who own much/rule much; to have begun not just by invoking fraught mimesis of the nervous existence that the ruled must then experience; but also to have begun by doing what in poetics today could be understood as going all the way: making live again Wieners’–all our–Nerves (1970): ‘In 1976 we never met I read/Nerves which lived & now from a//Huge non- splashy north the inner scisssors//Of / \ / \ a junco couple befriend & clip/Atonal irradiating cloth of lifesized spring...’. Wieners’ virtuosic turnings on a dime–in and past the sentence, in the line and beyond its break–and the capturing therein of a nervous or sensory system whose pinpoint rhythms look to, move into and become, poetry in order to know something of a world and a reality themselves often enough now consigned to ‘...a condition of gradual loss/of reality until there’s only left/this shattering of the world’ (Wieners, ‘Concentration’): This is not followed or copied but re-imagined, extended, with and as a pause-and-pushoff movement synchronizing itself with or flowing from the spacing (composed partly with the white of the page) within the line, and then synchronizing itself with or flowing from the composed spacing-between-the-single-line-and-subsequent-couplet, so that spacing itself testifies to historical time and difference (including formal-stylistic differences about how to turn, about whether to do it any longer on a dime), Wiener’s nerve-system experiments helping us read a later history whose different moment and material ask that Nerves be remembered and re-rendered, in our later time, in differently-composed space or spacing, hence space or spacing more prominently making the poem’s rhythm, that sense of its time (first ‘in 1976’ and then, later still, in the 2005 ‘Pieces of Epic in the Air’): ‘... why don’t you List in it//Sailor Even dry its hands in prose.’ ‘Ethical 6’ will turn the volume higher, until in its penultimate line it turns to the compound-word and compound-figure ‘robertduncan’; yet the poetic and aesthetic dynamics contributing to the ethics that Duncan is imagined to stand for appear already to have been suggested in Hillman’s titling her dedication to Wieners ‘Separate 7 With Its Bar of Personal Freedom.’ For it is not too much to see this style of scripting the ‘7,’ with its at once constraining and intoxicating ‘bar of personal freedom’ placed across the more standard rendering of the numeral, as a fantastic one-mark compression of Duncan’s various extended readings of Wieners’ attempts to allow poetry simultaneously to limn and stretch beyond the given (Duncan-readings of Wieners that had been grounded in ‘a pleasure in rimes rung out loud when there’s a song to it and it dances’): ‘...[A]s good as the best of Verlaine for me...John makes one feel the pathos of the individual ‘right’ to his own life, the desperate unhappiness of being unfulfilled in that life, and feeling the disapproval of the world about him for his homosexuality and his drug addiction. ‘we fixed in the night and/sank into a stinging flash...’ convinces me of some real experience (where the usual junky line of Ginsberg etc. seems to me gesturing for effect and rebellion)’ (Duncan to Denise Levertov). Duncan goes on to show how the ‘convinc[ing]’ evocation ‘of some real experience’ grounds much that moves beyond ‘real experience.’ But go ahead and condense all those Duncan-speculations; and, for a mere moment within those five minutes, move from the words FOR JOHN WIENERS to ‘Ethical 6’ and its fifth line: ‘Well Make 6 the radical unknown.’
Robert Kaufman teaches in the Comparative Literature Department of the University of California, Berkeley, where he works in several interrelated areas: 20th-21st-century American poetry and its dialogues with modern Latin American, German, French, and British poetry; romantic and 19th-century poetry and poetics; philosophical aesthetics, literary theory, and the history of criticism; and Frankfurt School critical theory and the arts (poetry and the other literary arts; music; cinema; painting, etc.). He is the author of Negative Romanticism: Adornian Aesthetics in Keats, Shelley, and Modern Poetry (forthcoming), and is at work on two related books: Why Poetry Should Matter–to the Left, and Modernism after Postmodernism? Robert Duncan and the Future-Present of American Poetry. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals and collections, including Critical Inquiry, October, American Poetry Review, Modernist Cultures, Cultural Critique, New German Critique, PMLA, Poetics Today, Walter Benjamin and Art, The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, Adorno and Literature, and Studies in Romanticism.
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Once upon a time, I heard phoenix music from outside, the swallow passing, another empire, proof of the proposition, now hang me, affirmativo. The E in Earth or Ecce Homo, global warning, and there you are, in the severe indigo air. Or there it is, the fragrance of gunpowder, the lacuna in ‘the nothing wheeled.’ The patterned ‘je’ is an other being, as in ‘I think, thus I be’ another being, the object of the self, or subject of the subject being its life and work revealed as mise en abyme. Experiences are exquisite, execrable or- exclamatory? Someone wished to tell, so told it to a well. The hollow reed grew from that well, and when someone else cut it down, carved finger holes and began to pipe, that flute aired the underworld of ice. Negativo, yet hang me, Sparky, I think I have a craving for figs.
Norma Cole is a poet, painter and translator. Among her books are Collective Memory, At All, and Spinoza in Her Youth. Translation work includes Danielle Collobert’s Journals, Fouad Gabriel Naffah’s The Spirit God and the Properties of Nitrogen and Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France.
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Air, the element that is the focus of this, the second volume of Brenda Hillman’s intricately structured element-tetralogy, is rendered visually and phonically, not by its own two vowels, A and I, but, with a nice touch of irony, by the letter designating the second vowel of the alphabet, E, whose rigid uppercase horizontal/vertical geometry regularly dissolves into the air, making way for its antithesis: the looped half-circle e of its lower-case counterpart. And ‘E’ is literally ‘in’ ‘Being,’ a word that contains both e and in.
Hillman’s ‘airy’ meditation (6 x 6-line minimalist stanzas, framed by two five-liners) explores that e at the center of ‘being’ in a myriad guises.
First the baby killdeer, scurrying ‘in a mountain meadow’ like so many tiny ‘eeee’ at the center of both syllables of ‘breathless.’ Without those e’s, the ‘lands’ become ‘pale,’ and the ‘glacier’ turns ‘bristled past white.’ Or again, the e’s become a ‘harvest of: / doomed unsayable / letters in even / eyes of aspens,’ for in ‘eyes,’ both e’s are mute. Thus the letter melts in air before our eyes–a vowel that can be rectangular or curved but never, the poet knows ‘triangular.’ As the lyric fantasy proceeds, it is the voice itself that dissolves or at least morphs, as the e in being morphs for ‘a good second’ from air to sea (‘seacipher) and is again partly ‘unsayable’ in ‘edged / of night,’ (with its soap opera allusion) and hidden in an avalanche of ampersands, the symbol & designating the e nowhere to be found when the word is spelled out–and. But not hidden for long, because in so many ‘key’ words, including ‘key’ itself, ‘e’ marks the ‘middle of syllable’s / casing’–for example in ‘yes,’ and even more fully in ‘yeses.’ But, since all things dissolve in the air, the ‘e’ marks the end of middle,’ and the ‘wheel’ comes full circle, ‘as the nothing wheeled?).’
Is Hillman’s lovely meditation influenced by Georges Perec’s La Disparition, that great novel, based on the elimination of the letter e? Is she perhaps e-choing the E chapter of Christian Bök’s Eunoia? I’m not sure, but whatever the impetus, ‘The E In Being’ does wonders with words we all know but never quite see as fully as we might. Look, for example at the progression of double consonants in the in(side) or ‘middle’ of Hillman’s final stanza: middle, apprentice, ballast, wheeled. The last word of the poem brings us back to the first ‘ — -eeee,’ and ready for the next cycle.
Marjorie Perloff’s most recent books are The Vienna Paradox and Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy. She is Sadie D. Patek Professor Emerita of the Humanities at Stanford University and currently Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Southern California.
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The arbitrariness of four words per line is not a givenness before which lineation has to surrender its own arbitrations. The poem’s first two lines stage a dramatic noncoincidence of line’s end and syntactically comfortable segment, the first ending on a preposition (‘against’) whose object has yet to find position and the second on an invented past participle (‘breezened’) detached from its substantive. The third line allows its fourth and last word to reestablish rest, ending on a direct object stopped by a semicolon. These two arbitrations–a fixed number of words per line and a principle of steep enjambment slowly giving way–are neither antagonistic to each other nor unaware of each other’s aims. The next set of three lines repeats this basic pattern: the first two breaking on a preposition (‘into’) and an adjective (‘infinite’) before a resolve to the endstopped third line’s direct object. After this, the poem will sustain greater and smaller syntactic movements, eventually allowing terminal punctuation to move from line’s end to its middle, but these first six lines are enough to alert the reader to a poem-wide interest in how a fixed word count ‘selected against / your going’ ‘anticipates a hope’ of arriving back ‘into’ a coincidence of line and speech and ‘navigates the stumble’ by which one would arrive there.
In other words, the single law of four words per line quickly discloses the presence of a second, a principle of lineation. And yet this drama of ‘bombed / or not bombed corners’ of lines where ‘half-said / sentences assemble’ is precisely and only that, a drama (cf. ‘negotiating with the drama / of class shadow’), in which these apparently twin concerns of number and break reunite to form a single principle of composition, or to produce a composition which is the undifferentiated shadow of all the choices and formal obligations that produced it.
In this the poem is like a street, an optional givenness whose systematicity can be subdivided, scaled up until dissolved in larger systems called city or class, or thought of as the site where local effects both disclose and obscure larger laws. It’s no accident then that ‘Carmerstrasse’ turns out to be a street on which Walter Benjamin lived as a child, a writer who would seem to be speaking to the intersection of line and syntax when he says in ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ that
...although a child, in his solitary games, grows up at closest quarters to the city, he needs and seeks guides to its wider expanses[i]
and of syntax’s passage through a fixed line in ‘On Carmerstrasse’ when he says of Proust a few pages later that
[h]e who has once begun to open the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments; no image satisfies him, for he has seen that it can be unfolded, and only in its folds does the truth reside; that image, that taste, that touch for whose sake all this has been unfurled and dissected; and now remembrance advances from small to smallest details, from the smallest to the infinitesimal, while that which it encounters in these microcosms grows ever mightier.[ii]
‘On Carmerstrasse’ figures this double passage as both a necessary experience of line’s locality and as locality’s unfurling of a general law: across a fixed width of street the continuous passage of a ‘you’ and its materials. Extending serially up, down, and across a scale of particulars like a ‘compound diplomat’s swanlet canal’s / day from a bottle,’ the poem requires its reader to think of ‘the soul’ as a law of a reading, a reading both ambulatory and ‘chained’ to a ‘bench’ (much like Benjamin’s ‘decisive benches in the Tiergarten’); this soul now rid of any divinity except urban attentiveness ‘turns to its example.’ And with that the poem ends, save for a dedication to a contemporary German poet. It ends in turning to the exemplary, a mode in which both large and small may be thought, the past of a street and the presence of that pastness, a particular address and the writer of urban life it produced. I prefer to think of ‘turn’ here neither as inclination nor conversion but as an enjambment across those dominant possibilities.
[i] ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ in Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London and New York: Verso, 2000), 293.
[ii] Ibid, 296.
Geoffrey G. O’Brien is the author of Green and Gray (University of California Press, 2007) and The Guns and Flags Project (UC Press, 2002) and and coauthor (in collaboration with the poet Jeff Clark) of 2A (Quemadura, 2006). He is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at UC Berkeley.
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What does it mean to dedicate a poem to ‘all who have suffered & died as a result of the war in Iraq.’ By which I mean what does it write with others in mind? And what does it mean to write in forms, such as epic and lyric and epyllion, used by others? All at the same time.
This is what I find myself asking as I read Brenda Hillman’s ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions.’ This is a poem written in spreads. In the book, the left side of the page spread is black; the right one white. The left side is all full of ‘they’ and ‘you’; the right side all full of ‘I.’ Both sides of the poem have beautiful language. And are self aware in how they use language that is often used when talking about beauty. Both sides mix classical references with contemporary ones.
An epyllion is usually romantic. This one opens with war.
I’ve been interested in the emergence of a concerted, collective attention by US poets, although of course not just by poets, to understanding this/these contemporary war(s). I’ve been making a list of this work and it begins like this: Amiri Baraka, Somebody Blew up America, Jules Boykoff, Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge, Rob Fitterman & Dirk Rowntree, War, a Musical, Judith Goldman, Deathstar/Rico-chet, Meg Hamill, Death Notices, Drew Gardener, Petroleum Hat, Fanny Howe, On the Ground, Lisa Jarnot, Black Dog Songs, Carole Mirakove, Mediated and Occupied, K. Silem Mohammad, Deer Head Nation, Alice Notley, Alma or the Dead Women, Jena Osman, Essays in Astericks, Kristin Prevallet, Shadow Evidence Intelligence, Kim Rosenfeld, Trama, Barrett Watten, Bad History, and Eliot Weinberg, ‘What I Heard about Iraq.’ But, of course, it doesn’t end there. It goes on and on. These have just caught my eye because they have nothing in common with each other (or maybe a few do have something in common, like one could say Mohammad’s and Gardner’s work is doing a similar sort of work with distorting found text and trace how this shows up in Rosenfield. Or one could say Goldman and Hamill and Weinberger are all using the news. Or that Boykoff and Mirakove seem to have something going on with the proper name. But when you sit down and read these books, they don’t feel that similar). It is as if the poets have realized that the declarations and righteous indignation of the anti-war poetry of the Vietnam war isn’t going to work for this/these war(s) and so they are trying out a bunch of forms, one by one, to see if any end up working, sticking, doing anything.
When I read all these works together though I feel like I begin to think differently. Most obviously, I rethink poetry as one driven by narratives of uniqueness. Poetry sometimes returns and dwells on tradition, on similarity. Poetry sometimes turns to the experimental and/or the avant garde, to the dissimilar. Both approaches help with understanding this/these war(s) as something old and new. Hillman’s poem, in particular, is about the dialogue between these old forms and new forms of writing about war(s): ‘The / needle improvises shown each / wideless war betweens’ (51). Perhaps, it suggests, if we want to get any scope in our understanding of war through time, we’ve got no option but to turn to poetry, one of the oldest genres, and one with close ties to war.
Juliana Spahr’s latest book is The Transformation (Atelos, 2007).
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In Pieces of Air in the Epic, Brenda Hillman has found a small way into a huge topic: needle-sharp, persistent, eccentric. Breath is the way; breath frames the epic. But breath, as such, is in pieces. Language stitches it. Into what? The flag of its own being in the breathing place.
What it must survive is the epic nationalism that history inscribes on it. Of all the poems in the book, the second of the nine untitled epyllions is most clarifying about the matter, without sacrificing any of the visionary oddity that is the book’s great achievement (for both the new-vision-quality and the oddity are anti-collective, that is, provisions of air).
The lines are brief–it doesn’t take long to make a stitch–and the speaker herself (a clear relation to Hillman, whose otherworldliness is disturbingly of this world, a ceaseless simmer of agitation) is Inspiration in withdrawn but unforgivingly aware form, the mother of peace-via-the-imagination, but grown weary of murderous folly, a bit cross, not a buxom goddess.
I made a winged
creature, and when they
bring it through each
desert on a flag
of bar codes and minus signs
in poverty of fact
through their present freedom,
it is then my
sweet-beaked creature stands for
If you claim the ‘winged / creature’ as the justification of your cause, especially a cause false as to its facts, you flatten it into an emblem (that’s murder, actually). Its meaning lies in imaginative transitivity, in intrinsic flight. It has no species name; it is important that it not be identified. (A bar code is the most machinic of identificatory tags; a minus sign assumes a quantified sum: this is the mathematics of loss and gain). The creature ‘cannot / cross’ the ‘O / blood river’: its being is exclamatory, is vital, hence its unresponsiveness to fact-referred causes.
.pp Still, it needs to dream in order to fan its air over ‘s/hell oil’ deserts; it needs to create a stir against the exploiters, raise a cry. The speaker acts as its interpreter. How exciting, if puzzling, she is as she warns:
you better start the other flag, assassin
air, citizen syllable.
Calvin Bedient, a professor at UCLA, is the author of two collections of poems: Candy Necklace and The Violence of the Morning.
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‘Attempting to describe paint dear/someone arrives at the left//and says Hello Nice Echo.’ A painting is an echo of the world, a poem is an echo of the world: a poem about a painting, about the art of painting, is an echo of an echo. In Greek mythology, Echo was cursed to repeat others’ words; but words can’t repeat pictures, so they must recreate instead. ‘Echo 858’ can be read as a meta-ekphrastic poem. It attempts to evoke the visual experience of a Gerhard Richter painting, the artist speaking through the paint strokes, all the while knowing that so much will be lost in translation (‘so many more colors than the one/you’re obsessed with’). But the poem also meditates on the process of looking (‘I looked below//the air behind the paintings’). It both explores the attempt to recreate that visual experience (recreating the process of recreating) and questions what it means to make such an attempt (‘Why bother trying to//trap it with description’), what it is to try to transmute images into words that might describe but don’t resemble. ‘I would like to record//a feeling that isn’t there.’ That feeling is neither the painting nor the viewer, but the space between them called perception, conception also, the space that language maps out and fills in.
Reginald Shepherd’s five books of poetry, all published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, include Fata Morgana (2007), Otherhood (2003), a finalist for the 2004 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and Some Are Drowning (1994), winner of the 1993 Associated Writing Programs’ Award in Poetry. He is the editor of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2004). His essay collection Orpheus in the Bronx is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. Shepherd lives with his partner in Pensacola, Florida.
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An opening, this poem opens libraries by asking us to enter through their oddness. We’re well aware of their other qualities, their quiet, their nobility, their historical airiness, but it’s through their oddness alone that Brenda asks us to enter, and it is central. And oddness itself is as central to her work as a whole as libraries are; both permeate her oeuvre, the one through atmosphere and the other through association. What is oddness? It’s not just difference; it’s difference with a tinge of the uncanny not quite strong enough to be unsettling. Instead, it remains well within the realm of the attractive; it’s almost magnetic; it pulls us toward it. And it’s what pulls us through this poem and through much of Brenda’s work. The odd is always alerting, and the first thing this poem alerts us to is the synesthetic opening in the first couple of lines; we focus on smell, and so are instantly transported beyond reason, into the unmediated immediate. And it’s immediately odd. The syntax of the first sentence is completely normal, and yet every word is slightly off-kilter. Before we’ve regained a sense of normalcy, we’re off again, heading toward, for instance, ‘a timeling of yellow math’. How is it that we know what that means? Oddness is an economy that subtly sets up its own rules and swiftly, silently teaches us ‘birdbacked joy’ and ‘blindfold grey.’ ‘An oddness made your book a world,’ she says, which makes it private; each of us, with our own oddnesses guaranteeing the wholeness of that world,’ the world that a book might possibly make briefly accessible to another. In this suite of twelve poems, Brenda multiplies the books that each individual oddness creates into a whole library that is both metaphorical and actual: metaphorical in that these and all her poems establish rich nets of reference that any reader may freely access, and actual in that Brenda, over the past many years, has created a small library’s worth of poetry and augmented it with edited volumes and critical works that constitute a precise slice and personal vision of written culture. ‘The mind had no periphery for meaning,’ she writes. And it still doesn’t.
Cole Swensen is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently The Glass Age. Her 2004 volume Goest was a finalist for the National Book Award, and other books have won the Iowa Poetry Prize, the SF State Poetry Center Book Award, and the National Poetry Series. She edits the translation press, La Presse, and teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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Q: What is air?
A: A riddle, an ‘ask-to-be-shown.’
The student of air sniffs its pages, reading:
air as silent reading.
Q: What is scent?
A: A civilization caught in the nostril and on the tongue, taste and tastes (green, spicy, calendula, meal & bone, cooked in iron). Make each page a tongue, not
talking, but tasting. Scent is a relation to the mouth, and how we understand to
swallow, not say; ‘forefinger to lips To hold/halfway.’
Q: What is reading?
A: It is training (invited measure). How:
~ Use invisibilities.
~ Crowd energies with fingers.
~ Hold halfway.
~ Research. Search again. Apply the used god parts and semaphores.
~ Write dust.
Q: What is breath?
A: A graph and a map. When you enter the maze, you do not leave it. Should you leave it, write live. There’s a fading threshold, a flame of doubt. Hold, between each word, its nothing air. Breath is translation. Talking ceases in it.
— Elizabeth Robinson in response to pp. 68-79 of Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of the Air in the Epic.
Elizabeth Robinson is the author, most recently, of Apostrophe (Apogee Press) and Under That Silky Roof (Burning Deck Press). A chapbook, The Golem, is forthcoming from Phylum Books.
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The Library Suite: which I take to be the poems from ‘An Oddness’ to ‘Epoch of Dust’ / ‘life of paper inside the great / Life.’ Great noise of the World–mostly wind–great silence of the Library (or so it should have been). Thought-breath at both into poem. Intermittent fall of dust motes: the fall of the utilizers, the demented, oblivious, a-memoried readers, inserting some world noise, some respectful silence due. This is you; it is your book that is carried around. ‘Did you love paper / more than people?’ You have no destination but death: there are no libraries. The only thing worse than the nothing of nothing: no libraries. ‘Knowledge is lonely since meaning left.’ For Hillman, you are ‘in between.’ Indeed, for any of us. There is also the ceiling of the library and its floor: you look up and look down continually. A cross. From both high windows and ceiling falls the light which blows the cover of the motes. They hide between book and book, never reaching the floor. Hillman has built a model of all lives and times (air-aura-era-epic-epoch) not only of this disinherited, diabolical polis, within the arche of knowledge. And what else but knowledge? A model as basic as any revealed by my other science. Against the world of fragments bought and sold.
Nathaniel Tarn is a poet, translator, essayist and editor. He has some 35 books in his disciplines, the latest being Selected Poems 1950-2000 (Wesleyan). His expertise in Anthropology is in Mesoamerica and the sociology of Buddhist institutions: the latest volume is Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans & Priests on Lake Atitlan (Marsilio Publishing). In the Sixties and Seventies he ran Cape Editions & Cape Goliard in London. He was recently in Indonesia, Sarawak and Papua New Guinea as well as Australia, reading and lecturing in Sydney and at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. He lives twenty minutes north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the United Mistakes.
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‘Sutra’ is an interesting concept of form: ‘Sutras, or succinct aphorisms of grammar’ Henry Colebrooke (author of Algebra of the Hindoos) called them. The Sanskrit word itself (derived from siv, ‘sew’) meant not only rule but thread. Another recent American
poet to use the term for a new form was Allen Ginsberg who was also not aphoristic, but powerful at stringing together, with a power like this of Brenda Hillman’s: the power to thread threats into a new fabric, a garment to wear even like a flag could be worn (garment-like, or shabby, verb or adjective, aphoristic of grammar). Here again find the power to unweave out of labyrinthine present-tense threats a new form and a new wit and a necessary complexity.
Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete and Pasiphae, helped Theseus escape from the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread, which he unraveled as he went in then used to trace his way out again after killing the Minotaur, a creature half man half bull, the other offspring of Pasiphae and a bull with which she fell in love, who was fed on human flesh and confined in that labyrinth made by Daedalus...a story nearly as horrific as that to which Hillman alludes, of contemporary politics. These words, ‘thread,’ ‘draft,’ and ‘tract,’ all share origins, Germanic origins. ‘String,’ on the other hand, is related to ‘strong.’ ‘Theory’ is from the Greek for looking: to theorize is to look hard. All Brenda Hillman’s poetry is hard looking, difficult and intense looking and listening and weaving the pieces, the threads.
Bin Ramke’s ninth book, Tendril, will appear from Omnidawn in the fall of 2007. He teaches and edits the Denver Quarterly at the University of Denver, and teaches sometimes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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How may a poet’s necessary delight protract itself and even thrive under the rigors of her humanness? ‘Our art/could help take vividness to people/but only if they had food.’ (Here we hear, don’t we, a beautiful echo of Jack Spicer’s injunction to Ginsberg–’People are starving.’) A poet needs to play. She draws sustenance from the mischief of language in which all poems start. Hence the divine pun embedded in Hillman’s title; ‘sutra’ means ‘thread’ but centuries of play have drawn that thread far out into treatises of loving truth and compassion. In our American moment, this imperium of disgrace, can the love of truth permit itself to play? Can compassion string us along? It is from such fret and tender puzzlement that ‘String Theory Sutra’ draws first its energy and then its beautiful, trustworthy authority. Figurative language–simile, metaphor, symbol–are indispensable to the poet but indefensible now that flags and many such metonyms torment the Republics for which they stand. Hence the form of ‘String Theory Sutra’: a poem divided against itself and for the sake of a vital conversation. Je est un autre indeed says Rimbaud, says Hillman, says poetry. And yet...and yet...’How am/I so unreal & yet my/thread is real...’ Poetry unskeins itself to continue in the middle margins inside paradox. To the brutal symbol of a flag, Hillman counterpoises the unicorn, as in the legends and Yes! the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn. You know the story, and Hillman recounts it for us all with all its knots intact. The poet baits a trap with herself in her first innocence AND she is herself that unicorn fatally, triumphantly, entrapped so. Among our current words, ‘String Theory Sutra’ proves a greater love.
Donald Revell is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently of A Thief of Strings (2007) and of Pennyweight Windows: New & Selected Poems (2005), both from Alice James Books. He teaches at the University of Utah and lives in Nevada.
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The statement, ‘The path ascends itself,’ evokes a world released from human will and desire. But, as the first line of ‘Eyes in Aspen,’ the last poem of Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic, it is a beginning haunted by human struggle, one which, for me, became the site of a deeper understanding of this book’s power. First, though, as I took on the persona of ‘reader & hero’ of these pieces, I marveled at Hillman’s poetic compressions, which are, here, even more than in earlier books, facetted, colliding, fragmented, invoking a proposition in physics that the higher levels of chaos enable us to see from. Two forms are in play, continually, inseparably: the classical ‘aba,’ with its beginnings, middles and ends, and the epic, which a college professor once described as ‘open-ended like the American prairie.’ Epyllions, little epics, center the book, in the formal place of the ‘b’ between ‘a’s. They’re the book’s heart and iliad–war, suffering, greed, injustice–which, in the framework of the book’s poetics, are contingent to and interpenetrating the stuff of an animate world: particles, winds, breaths, acts, thoughts. This middle section’s black writing on white pages and white writing on black pages evokes aspen woods in an afterimage. There follows ‘[interruption],’ a lightly charted space of ‘winds,’ ‘namings,’ and ‘love,’ which includes a quote from Robert Duncan: ‘another body my body is.’ The book then arrives at a fragment of song, Biblical psalm: ‘I will lift up mine ...’–at which point, the Reader/Hero/I rejected going on. The reaction was instinctive, the way a body rejects fire. Memories? Mine? Mine and others’? I skipped to the end and became interested in the book’s overarching symmetry. After the epyllions, to arrive at the last poem and read ‘The path ascends itself’ is like setting out in an aspen woods on freshly fallen snow knowing that war is going on somewhere in the world. Its mirror in the ‘aba’ form, the first line of the first poem, ‘Street Corner,’ also begins on an angle–‘There was an angle’–and ends with force in a statement: ‘song outlasts poetry,’ which is repeated, taking on the ring of a testament of faith. Soon after this beginning, aspens appear in a poem entitled ‘Reversible Wind’: ‘Each aspen leaf a coat of arms / a toothless lineage of solitude.’ I thought of Paul Celan’s ‘Aspen tree, your leaves glance turn white into dark’ and his ‘What leaf trembles / when no wind blows? / The aspen leaf, / my love, my grief’; and of his use of music: the fugue, folk songs, and the Psalms (J. Felstiner’s translation). And I thought of the end of the twentieth century’s quarrel with song and our struggle with unempirical truths and religious faith. And I thought of the place where I leapt to the side reading Pieces of Air in the Epic and where poets of my time carried me along, poem by poem, to the last; and through its airs of snipping and spinning fates, its black and white presences and absences, its lace-maker creations and last line: ‘precise and limitless.’ This is the way reading Brenda Hillman’s work reminded me that poetry can sustain visions of wholeness and faith in alienated and violent times, and that love and courage are required of song.
Patricia Elliot Dienstfrey is co-founder of Kelsey St. Press, which has been publishing innovative writing by women since 1974. Her books include The Woman Without Experiences (Kelsey Street, 1995) and Love and Illustration (a+bend, 2000). Selected work appears in Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, edited by Mary Margaret Sloan (Talisman House, 1997). With Brenda Hillman, she co-edited a collection of essays, The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan University Press, 2003). Currently she is working on a prose poem entitled ‘Girl Riding Through The Story Garden’.
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when words won’t come,
spin an air
from nothing’s foam,
the dark of a room,
the space in between,
the restive limbs, hidden things,
bent light cast by things
flooding mind’s eye,
blind eye, ardent eye,
Echo’s call, double song,
now bright, now dim,
always warring within,
the mute pieces tell
of a silence to fill.
Michael Palmer lives in San Francisco. His most recent book of poetry is Company of Moths (New Directions, 2005). In the spring of 2007, a chapbook, The Counter-Sky (with translations by Koichiro Yamauchi) , was published by Meltemia Press of Japan, to coincide with the Tokyo Poetry and Dance Festival.
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