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Beth Staley

Voice Loops through Brenda Hillman’s
«Pieces of Air in the Epic»

Articulating the Social Lyric

Section 1

For the September 2008 Lifting Belly High Conference on Women’s Poetry Since 1900 at Duquesne University, I organized a panel titled ‘Dynamic Lyric: Purviews Beyond the Personal’ with the aim of acknowledging the lyric’s scope beyond the isolated, apolitical, even estranged space of its supposed and traditional speakers — to engage what Juliana Spahr hears in the lyrics of many contemporary women poets as a move ‘away from an individual space towards a shared, connective space,’ wherein the private and public, the solitary and social, commingle (113). Beyond much of the critical work on the lyric’s definition and subjectivity, Spahr explores the possibility of lyric intimacy across a range of relationships, activities, encounters, boundaries, and proximities. If we are to follow along, we must listen closely; after all, our reading of such lyric intimacy is inflected by our reading of lyric voice, a term that is often problematic in lyric poetry.


Appropriately, the papers on the ‘Dynamic Lyric’ panel seemed to hinge on the role of voice in activating the lyric, its liberation and latitude, beyond the personal. Whether dealing with lyrical definitions, subjectivities, or intimacies, a poem’s voice is really the vehicle towards what is just out of reach and not quite known — whether it’s cultural, spiritual, historical, sexual, or interpersonal. And as the protocols, frequencies, technologies, gestures, and languages of communication change, so to do our lyric voices; since the uncertainty of the twentieth century, Brenda Hillman suggests that ‘the lyric is rendered on torn, damaged or twisted strings. A lyric poet sings boldly and bluntly to the general populace or is visited quietly by the distressed hero who needs an oracle’ (‘On Song’ par. 2). Indeed, we must attune to both the lyric voice and its condition —


Of course, we have to be careful as we read voice — careful with the word ‘voice’ in general because, as Virginia Jackson reminds us, ‘the figure of the speaking voice is the lyric metaphor’ (132). And it can trap us into reading poems like rather than after John Stuart Mill who, in 1833, emphasized a very singular lyric isolation with his all-famous quote: ‘[T]he peculiarity of poetry appears to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude’ (345). With her watershed book, Dickinson’s Misery,Jackson replaces the subjective self-address of a poem’s speaker proposed by Mill with the intersubjective craft of the poet, wherein something or someone mediates the poet’s seclusion; so in Emily Dickinson’s work, Jackson looks at how the speaker is not alone, but ‘alone with’ someone, the page often becoming their meeting place (133).


In PMLA’s collection of essays on ‘The New Lyric Studies,’ January 2008, Yopie Prins also recalls Mill, especially his contention that poetry is ‘overheard,’ and she likewise considers how a poet’s isolation is mediated saying, ‘Although we tend to think of sound as immediate (is it?), the sound of poetry is never heard without mediation, and we should attend to the medium’ (123). She discusses how the sound of poetry is mediated out loud with a microphone and on the page with printed or written characters by recalling Sidney Lanier’s assertion that sound can be ‘impressed’ on both the ear and the eye — that words on a page are ‘signs of sounds; and although originally received by the eye, they are handed over to the ear’ (qtd. in Prins 231).


Whether it is some very specific audience (not us), sound itself, or something else that mediates a poet’s seclusion, we ought to recognize such mediating factors as they condition our lyric voices; in doing so, we have the opportunity to discover what is dynamic, not solitary, about the lyric — as well as its purviews beyond the personal. That which mediates the poet’s seclusion leads the poet, and thus the poetry reader, out of that seclusion — beyond the singular, the personal, the isolated. Nonetheless, looking for that which mediates a poet’s seclusion is different from poet to poet, poem to poem. And while any poetic movement or oeuvre is telling herein, Brenda Hillman’s tetrology is particularly apt in how it foregrounds the mediation of its subjects, the elements of earth, air, water, and fire —


Following her innovative study of earth, especially California’s geological history and activity, in Cascadia, Hillman explores air as a medium both life-giving and message-carrying in her most recent collection, Pieces of Air in the Epic. Air in these poems appears as breath, wind, and charged space, but like her formal enactment of alchemy in Loose Sugar and fault lines in Cascadia, Hillman’s subjects often become her strategies, informing how the text will fall on the page — and sometimes into the margins. Her experimental use of white space engages air on the pages of Pieces of Air in the Epic — and not just between words, lines, and stanzas; she calls into question the presence of air, its very shape around the printed letters and symbols of her trade; in ‘Green Pants & A Bamboo Flute,’ she writes: ‘Maybe particle spirits / Will spin in the @ of each address’ (13), and in ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions,’ she describes, ‘the L between word and world’ and ‘a breezy o in the word world’ (48, 52). [The plural of epyllion is traditionally given as epyllia. Ed.]


Thus, air plays a double-role as a mediating factor in Hillman’s poems. As a subject, air mediates not only the poet’s seclusion, but also everything and everyone’s seclusion, because it is an element shared globally. And as a strategy, Hillman’s material enactment of air with print conventions also mediates any idealized seclusion we might grant her because it ambitiously enlarges the scope of these poems in multivalent, multifarious, and multi-modal ways. Whatever air can pick up, these poems pick up. Wherever air can go, these poems go. However air can act, these poems act. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is how it revises the old metaphor of a singular voice in lyric poetry; by citing air, literally and formally as an element mediating all seclusion, Hillman’s book offers what we might call a metaphor of voice loops. Hillman’s voice is still coherent and cohesive, but the knowledge it accesses is highly multiple; by way of air and poem, she loops both informational and aural phrases, strands, and bites of language that intimately engage her with this world and its events.


Though obvious, it bears mentioning: voice loops aren’t viable without air. The first voice loop was an echo, and now, we have advanced voice loop technology that aids coordination in air traffic control, aircraft carrier operations, and space shuttle mission control. As opposed to seclusion and disconnection, a lyric metaphor of voice loops verifies inclusion and connection. The poem directly in the center of Hillman’s book, ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions,’ becomes paradigmatic of the voice loop as a metaphor. The epyllion, Greek for ‘tiny epic,’ is a brief epic poem traditionally of dactylic hexameter that was popular during the Greek Alexandrian period of the fourth and third centuries B.C. Characterized by mythological and romantic themes, lively description, scholarly allusion, and elevated often elegiac tone, the epyllion has not been popularly employed since Callimachus and Theocritus. Hillman’s experimentation with the epyllion makes sense because it amalgamates the variety of a large narrative poem, of the epochal, with the concision of a shorter poem; likewise, the form allows her to use what she calls ‘multiple threads of styles’ ( qtd. in Cohen).


Accordingly, ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions,’ is intricately variegated; one page per epyllion, the most obvious characteristic of this poem is noticeable upon flipping through the book. Every other epyllion, beginning with the first one and including the last one, is printed with white text on a black page; and the epyllions facing them are printed according to standardization with black text on a white page. Yet this formatting isn’t alone in distinguishing the odd from the even epyllions confronting each other with such dramatic contrast. Their craft is also markedly different; while all the epyllions are composed in free verse, the odd ones on black pages utilize stanzas of varying line length, but the even ones on white pages maintain a consistent form of line, space, line, space; the effect is that of a stretched block stanza.


Meanwhile, a near-omniscience — driven by fluid shifts between first, second, and third person voices — permeates the epyllions on black pages; the first one begins: ‘Something about breathing / The air inside a war’ (44). The word ‘breath’ is variously repeated in this first epyllion and throughout the poem; likewise, the spaces between the black pages’ stanzas function like breaths between the information, sounds, and images that bear witness to war; they emphasize the pauses, inevitable and necessary, between what is revealed in aptly uneven and ragged stanzas. By contrast, a female presence, mostly first person and responsively meditative, presides over the epyllions on white pages; the second (but first white page’s) epyllion begins with a first-person reflection on the winged creature she has sewn into a flag that will accompany an army into the desert; thus, air accounts for all the wind that will move it on the battlefield, wind as a constant that passes through and beyond the war and its impact. Here, the predictable, constant spaces between lines function like the persistence of wind through and shared by all locations, warring or not.


Ultimately, the shift made from epyllion to epyllion oscillates between the looped war-ridden tension on the black pages and the sustained awareness of that tension on the white pages, and these shifts enlist a consistent pattern of delivery very similar to the pattern of actual voice loops used in airborne communication technology, a pattern that hinges on the multivalent, multifarious, and multi-modal medium of air. It’s important, though, to understand this pattern of voice loops for both its poetic and political meaning. After all, this poem is dedicated to ‘all who have suffered & died as a result of the war in Iraq’ (Pieces 89). The pattern emerges as both poetic and political in how it sets up a binary of witness and response to the current epic constituted by the war in Iraq. We can better understand how the pattern of voice loops in Hillman’s poem operates by understanding its correspondence with actual patterns of voice loops in our airspace, a technology indicative of an already-functional system of witness and response that covers the globe — a system that can assist our understanding of how Hillman’s poems use what she calls in the book’s dust-jacket, ‘air on the page as a matrix for cultural healing.’


According to the essay, ‘Voice Loops as Coordination Aids in Space Shuttle Mission Control,’ by Emily S. Patterson, Jennifer Watts-Perotti, and David D. Woods, a voice loop is a real-time auditory channel connecting physically distributed controllers during a space shuttle mission; the information broadcasted by a controller on one loop reaches everyone listening in on that loop, and the multiple loops can be synchronously monitored (Patterson, Watts-Perotti, and Woods 357). And so the pattern emerges: the most important or commonly observed loops can be amalgamated onto a single ‘page,’ and certain loop configurations might be saved even as the active loops on these pages are dynamically reconfigured according to the constant changes in loop activity; meanwhile, high priority loops can be turned on or raised in volume, just as low priority loops can be turned off or lessened in volume (Patterson, Watts-Perotti, and Woods 357). Important and interesting to this pattern is the formal protocol in mission control that flight controllers are permitted to speak on only a fraction of the loops they can monitor; in this particular voice loop interface, each channel can be programmed for either ‘monitor’ or ‘talk’ modes, and though any number of channels might be monitored, only one channel at a time can be set to ‘talk’ mode (Patterson, Watts-Perotti, and Woods 357). So in order to initiate articulation, the controller must hit a button on a hand unit or keep a foot-pedal depressed while speaking into a headset (Patterson, Watts-Perotti, and Woods 357).


Nonetheless, is it practical to use this actual voice loop pattern to understand what I’m calling Hillman’s voice loop pattern? I’d like to answer this question positively by emphasizing how these voice loops and literature coincide. Without getting trapped in the complex hierarchical structure of a typical space shuttle mission control team, it’s worth mentioning that Patterson, Watts-Perotti, and Woods are interested in how the voice loop interface and controls might ably and potentially support cooperative activity in a variety of event-driven domains even beyond the mission control environment. Though it may not be what they have in mind, the lyric certainly qualifies as an event-driven domain, one that might benefit from the voice loop. And why not compare the voice loop of air media to the voice loop of print media?


This approach is exactly the kind advocated by N. Katherine Hayles’s ‘media specific analysis’ or ‘MSA,’ which does not approach media in isolation; rather it is predicated on the notion that media engage in a recursive dynamic of imitation, utilizing aspects of competing media while highlighting their own forms of mediation (30). In fact, these are the two things MSA responds to: the citations and imitations of one medium to another and the specificity of form in the medium to be analyzed; basically, the language generically limited to any given medium analysis is replaced with a more exact vocabulary that might cut across several media — ‘screen and page, digital program and analog interface, code and ink, mutable image and durable mark, computer and book’ (Hayles 30). If ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions’ can be analyzed media specifically under similar terms, then we have the opportunity to more deeply pursue this voice loop pattern from the air to Hillman’s poem and book respectively.


As such, the term ‘voice loop’ should be imported to enrich our comprehension of this poem’s craft, particularly the leaps between the informational and aural phrases, strands, and bites of language in the epyllions on black pages, which might be read as a configuration of monitored voice loops, perhaps saved and recorded on the page. In fact, the black page with white print recalls the screen of a visual interface, which is usually still called and thus imitative of a page, though it often inverts the standard, hard-copy white page with black print. Indeed, many visual interfaces can be formatted so that a page or its font take on any shade of the rainbow, but the earliest ones and most interfaces reserved for technical system management typically consist of a black screen with brighter character fonts. Thus, the stanzas of these epyllions on black pages might be heard as voice loops analogous to the multivalent, multifarious, and multi-modal voice loops that share actual space in air transit — and, here, representational space on the black pages with epyllions. Hillman even calls attention to how her composition of the final epyllion, also on a black page, is interceded by Microsoft Word when she describes loose mists but corrects the adjective: ‘(loosatic / is the word / needed here but Microsoft / has rejected it)’ (Pieces 52). The poem’s ambitious crafting self-consciously tests the limits of print, ultimately highlighting how it can imitate and cite air.


If we extend our reading of the poem’s conceptual interface as such, the epyllions on white pages might be representative of the shift made when a voice loop is switched to talk mode; hence the articulation of these epyllions’ female presence. After all, in a real voice loop interface, it is the deliberate press of a button or the sustained depression of a foot pedal that necessitates the sending of information over a loop (Patterson, Watts-Perotti, Woods 357). The shift in delivery to the stretched block stanza would not be differentiation enough from the monitored voice loops of the epyllions on black pages; the switch to black print on a white page allows the voice to be recognized distinctly and immediately — as abruptly as a voice over a loop interjecting, ‘Break! Break!’ — a protocol rarely uttered — and only with critical information. And the critical information in ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions’ might have more to do with this pattern than any of the individual voice loops that might be extricated and closely read; if anything, the critical information in voice loops is always and only relevant via the entire pattern of their coordination since urgent communication on one loop demands attention to the possible shifts it might incur on other loops.


Overall, two factors stimulated the wide acceptance of voice loop technology in mission control, and these factors should be considered alongside the purpose of the pattern in ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions.’ First, controllers can tune in to relevant information without disrupting their own activities or those of anyone else; in fact, they can listen to loops without announcing their presence on them; so ‘the burden of interaction’ resides with those controllers affected by the information (Patterson, Watts-Perotti, and Woods 369). Second, because the voice loop system has been designed around the mission control organizational structure, various loops are designated for detailed and specific subsystem discussions, observable interactions, air-to-ground communications, ad hoc responses to unexpected incidents, and conference loops for interconnected subsystem coordination (Patterson, Watts-Perotti, and Woods 369). Patterson, Watts-Perotti, and Woods compare this context-sensitive design structure to both single global loop designs where controllers speak in turns and contrasting design concepts where controllers must create loops when they need them; such inferior designs considerably delay both information reception and response.


What is unique to this more practical and superior voice loop technology in mission control is the emphasis on intent listening, interaction only when necessary, and shared accountability with regard to the consequences of communication — an apt formula for global awareness of the current epic, its unfolding amidst the turmoil in and beyond Iraq — a formula that is central to the pattern in ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions.’ The voice loop metaphor in Hillman’s poem invites us into her book’s dynamic project. If air can carry voice loops to aid air traffic management, aircraft carrier operations, and space shuttle mission control all over the world — if air can assist communication related to transport, military interest, and space exploration, might it be understood in a different way as a matrix for cultural healing? After all, it is the life-giving element and message-carrying medium that all allies and enemies share. Adrienne Rich seems to impart this perspective in the last section titled ‘Mission Statement’ of her poem ‘USonian Journals 2000.’ She writes:


The Organization for the Abolition of Cruelty has an air deployment
with bases on every continent and on obscurer tracts of land. Airstrips
and hangars have been constructed to accommodate large and small air-
craft reconnoiter and rescue missions whether on polar ice or in desert
or rainforest conditions. Many types of craft are of course deployed to
urban clusters .The mission of the Organization is not to the First,
Third, or any other World. It is directed toward the investigation and
abrogation of cruelty in every direction, including present and future
extraterrestrial locations. (42)


Like ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions,’ this poem suggests the potential of air as a shared medium that might evolve into worthy forms of local and global activism and humanism, which are as important to both Hillman and Rich as the lyric. To be sure, Rich’s ‘many types of craft’ are both political and poetic. This is a vision made possible by air and ear — a refusal to let them err longer — a revision.


A call to lyric —


Because it is the lyric, and the social lyric in particular, that can channel this potential with hope for change — hope, and an inevitable dose of dread for any impending stasis, corruption, or ignorance. Dread, according to Hillman, is a ‘hard-core emotion, not like anxiety or wistfulness. Having poetic dread as an ally is like looking forward to the next earthquake. A portion of the process is preserved. Hell grows corners. Causality backs up toward the door’ (‘Twelve Writings’ 279). It’s important to note that ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions’ ends on a black page, thus concluding the first half of Pieces of Air in the Epic. So, there is not symmetry, no white page corresponding to its final tense observations; in line 6 of this last epyllion, Hillman writes: ‘The war is forget forgot forgotten,’ and the last stanza reads:


The holes where the children sleep
are to be your work: what what
what what what what
why. It was
a judgeless
dream, including the very day it liked to provide. (Pieces 52)


Perhaps the asymmetry of the poem and especially this conclusion, its definition of ‘your work’ and the day provided by a judgeless dream, are meant as invitations to the reader. ‘[Y]our work’ echoes Rich’s ‘many types of craft.’ And the lack of an accompanying epyllion on a white page beside this one compels a sense of darkness, incompleteness, and unfinished business (if you will). It’s appropriate that Barbara Claire Freeman’s review of Pieces of Air in the Epic in Jacket is an unconventional, dialogic collection of writers’ responses to the book’s ‘pieces,’ thus achieving ‘a mode of critical response that is as various as the text it encounters’ (par. 2). Ultimately, the urge of ‘Nine Untitled Epyllions,’ especially in terms of its voice loop pattern, encourages listening, necessary interaction, and shared accountability — especially in response to the war in Iraq. It articulates a social lyric that, like this air/err, we already share. And now what?

Works Cited

Cohen, Sarah. ‘Odd and Visionary Arts — an interview with Brenda Hillman.’ Faultline 22 May 2006. 29 June 2006 <>.

Freeman, Barbara Claire, ed. ‘Pieces on Pieces of Air in the Epic, by Brenda Hillman.’ Jacket 33 (2007). 1 April 2009 <>.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT P, 2002.

Hillman, Brenda. ‘On Song, Lyric, and Strings.’ New American Writing 25 (2007). 23 April 2008 <>.

———. Pieces of Air in the Epic. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2002.

———. ‘Twelve Writings toward a Poetics of Alchemy, Dread, Inconsistency, Betweenness, and California Geological Syntax.’ American Women Poets in the 21st Century. Eds. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2002. 276–281.

Jackson, Virginia. Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Mill, John Stuart. ‘Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties.’ The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1981.

Prins, Yopie. ‘Historical Poetics, Dysprosody, and the The Science of English Verse.’ PMLA 123.1 (2008): 229–234.

Patterson, Emily S., Jennifer Watts-Perotti, and David D. Woods. ‘Voice Loops as Coordination Aids in Space Shuttle Mission Control.’ Computer Supported Cooperative Work 8 (1999): 353–371.

Rich, Adrienne. The School Among the Ruins. New York: Norton, 2004.

Spahr, Juliana. ‘“Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love”: Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets.’ differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.2 (2001): 98–120.

Beth Staley

Beth Staley

Beth Staley teaches at West Virginia University, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in literature. She writes essays and poems. Her companion poem to this piece also appears in Jacket 37.

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