Thursday, August 03, 2006

NEW! Review of Brenda Hillman

Pieces of Air in the Epic by Brenda Hillman. Wesleyan University Press

Reviewed by Tara Gorvine

The second book in what will be a tetrology of the elements, this collection takes air as its subject. Writing an entire volume of poetry based on a concept is a tricky business, and one that in less adept hands often feels forced. But Hillman avoids this pitfall. Air by its very nature is mutable, and hence can change identity and avoid feeling like an affected trope. Here air appears in different guises: wind, space, breath. We don’t always recognize immediately whether it is the subject, object, or protagonist of a poem. Air takes yet another form when translated into space on the page--extra space between words and phrases, odd breaks and enjambments--so that we pause after each, give them more weight, and wonder what is missing and what else could be said.

Hillman’s approach now has more in common with language poetry than with the lyricism of her earlier work. Her transition--or perhaps transformation--is that of a figurative painter who turns to abstraction. Much of it is intentionally cryptic:
When you enter the colorless
Center of the epic
If they sideways a harp
After the inlaid griffin
Into a courtyard of foam and mint

It is then a single air will spin the epic
Suffering of a little epic

Is there meaning here, or must the reader make his own? Well, a little of both. These poems demand participation. The reader is given the materials but must put them together himself. This makes for challenging reading, and some may find themselves feeling confused, possibly even alienated. Others may find in Hillman’s work exactly what they are looking for, and feel liberated at the freedom the poems achieve.

To read Hillman we must trust her. Only she knows the way through her poems; there is no guessing where they will go. Whereas lyrical and narrative verse makes order out of chaos by establishing patterns, Hillman willfully breaks sense down even further, makes an effort to avoid order. We are not able to build expectations. Her vision is fractured, refracted, dispersed by space. In the first poem, “Street Corner”
meanings grew past a second terror
finding their way as evenings, hearing the peppermint
noise of sparrows landing
like spare dreams of citizens where abstraction and
the real could merge.

Here we have a moment of pure lyricism, “the peppermint / noise of sparrows” encountering the intersection of abstraction and the real world--the method of the collection as a whole and a fair description of what we encounter in subsequent poems--lines as strange as someone else’s dream bleeding into moments of clarity and precision.

Rather than relying on a lyrical thread or narrative line, Hillman is associative. In this way she approaches the heart of her poems, coming at them from every angle, taking away the form and leaving the language, an accumulation of sense and sound. Her language is often whimsical and deliberately opaque, as if to mirror a likewise incomprehensible world. It is as if the poet here makes no claim to greater wisdom, and cannot, will not, make order and meaning out of that which has none.

In some poems the “I” feels less like a narrator than a point from which to describe another piece of the epic. Such is the case in one of the “Nine Untitled Epyllions” (“epyllion” being the word for little epic or scrap of poetry):
I am a seamstress
I have no country
So when I count our dying hero’s breaths
as stitches carrying Trotsky
south, it seems cloth
is a state though
every century changes what
cloth is.

Lines like these create and keep a certain distance. This is an existential riff, more intellectual musing than heartfelt question. Yet there is a greater sensibility behind these poems, and the “I” may turn and address us, as this poem does in the very next line:

Now you
might enter: what kind
of cloth is your
soul, do you think.

This is no idle question, but neither is an answer expected.

Few American poets these days are as forthrightly political as Hillman in this collection. It’s risky, in the sense that the polemics can easily overtake the poetry. In these moments however, her language gains force and there is no mistaking the meaning. Because such lines are interspersed and not the whole body of a poem, and because her poems change like quicksilver, these moments are an interesting contrast to the abstractions around them: “They were mostly raised in tanklike SUVs called Caravan or / Quest; winds rarely visited them. Their / president says global warming doesn’t exist.” And a bit later in the poem, enter Iphigenia, the perfect marriage of air and epic, sacrificed for wind to blow the troops to Troy. Hillman offers a compelling twist--sailors who had the wind all along:
father could have removed the sails
and rowed to Troy. Nothing makes
sense in a war, you say. Throw away the hunger and the war’s
all gone. There’s a section between
the between of joy & terror where the sailors know they shouldn’t open the sack of winds. It gives the gods more credit.

Here the language of the epic gives Hillman the perfect entrée into political territory, a conceit with which to discuss it. But what is the epic of the title, and since we’re asking, the air in the epic?
For centuries people carried the epic
inside themselves . . .
Side stories leaked into the epic,
told by its lover, the world.

In the world of this book the epic includes the gods, men and women of classical mythology. We, it would seem, are the side stories that have leaked in, our breath joining theirs.

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