Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Brenda Hillman!
I have been immensely inspired this past week by a poet I just discovered—Brenda Hillman. This is from her short Poetry Foundation bio:
One of contemporary poetry’s most eclectic formalists, Brenda Hillman is known for poems that draw on elements of found texts and document, personal narrative, confession, and literary theory. Hillman told Contemporary Authors: “I am interested in the presence of spirit in matter and in how to have joy in a divided universe—that’s what my poetry is mainly about. My tools are irony, the image, the broken narrative, and an intensely personal voice.”
This week’s poetry post is a treasure trove of material. I start with a section of an interview between Tod Marshall and Brenda Hillman, from a book titled Range of the Possible, which I featured in this post last September. Next is a poem by Brenda Hillman, titled Cheap Gas, from her book, Loose Sugar (Wesleyan University Press, 1997). Then I conclude with a poem I wrote when a line from Leonard Cohen’s song There Is a War compelled me to distill the recent (and excellent) Missoula Independent feature Joystick warfare hell, which tells the story of a terrible memory a drone “pilot” will live with for the rest of his life.
Have a safe weekend!
I guess what I’m thinking about is when poetry attempts to engage specific issues that we usually associate with the public writ large, commentary on race, war, gender issues, economics, social justice. I realize that identity is frequently wrapped up with such discussions, but I also think that we can make some distinction between, say, the lyrical impulse of Millay and the poetry of witness of Forché.
That’s a good question, and there are several ways into it. Often the language subverts intention, and when poets take it as a specific challenge to do as you describe, to try for a kind of poetry that addresses social issues, such as the kind that focuses on the present environmental crisis, and so forth, the poem has its own idea of what it wants to do and it cannot exist without its own ethics. In Loose Sugar, I meant to write a book on the imaginary substance of time, using experimental forms, and I or it had to take into account the senselessness of the Gulf War and gasoline love while I was writing it. Having thought about matter as entrapment for the Gnostics, I was thinking about the will of the body and sex and the beginning of time as a freeing thing, and suddenly, a really idiotic war happened, which put my students’ bodies at risk. It began to seem that my inquiry sometimes had to be bound up with political and social issues. The kind of commentary you refer to—making political statements—is very hard to do in poetry without falling into terrible cliché or smugness. What seemed most drastic about the eighties was how scary Reaganomics was, or were, and the figures of Reagan and Bush. Those jokes about Reagan turning off his hearing aid in meetings, that sort of thing. The Contra deal—my god. The eighties, in one way, had been a batch of hideous ironies. I wrote about it in a little poem called “No Problem,” which is a rather heavy-handed item. Thinking about forms of identity and how nationalism was invented to wreck male bodies made me sick. Thinking about gasoline made me think about mixtures of things from under the earth, which made me think of alchemy, which was also what my interest in Gnosticism had led me to, and the Gulf War led to thinking about nationalism and my childhood experience of Postcolonialism in Brasil, loss of language and remaking the mother tongue, and it all wound up together! I found that the political interests could not be separated from the rest of it when writing that book.
That gives us insight into Loose Sugar. Some people have identified the act of writing poetry in our age as a political act—because it goes so in the face of economic, social and various political agendas. Do you agree with such a sentiment? Or, to get at the question a different way, are the personal and political always intertwined?
The political and the personal are mostly intertwined, if you believe in the personal. Some people’s hopes for making writing more political comes from the guilt about the uselessness of art among people who are trying to write poetry in this country, especially young poets who are under pressure to do something useful with their M.F.A.s and who feel guilty for sitting around writing poetry because they were told it is a sort of useless thing to do. And in a way, all art is useless. But original language engages us in moral difficulties. It makes us hear words past the cliché; it takes apart the world and relanguages it in the process. My poems are difficult and full of weird devices. They aren’t going to be too useful to enact social change. I read at a couple of Gulf War protests and thought about the limitations of polemics.
That dithyramb of ticky-tick, boom,
brrrrr we hear when we lift
the nozzle, pull back on the black rubber
and shove it in—
the noise hums to a bigger rumble,
practically shakes the self-serve pump;
probably it’s the ancient forests
growing higher, reversing the Pleistocene—
they’re refusing to become Techroline Super-Unleaded,
the trees have decided not to leave their bodies
in the rotting executive swamps.
Blackened thumbs hold the credit card slips
in the clipboard, the sweet young
men tear off “customer copy,”
look us in the eye. Their names in wilted
red letters over their hearts:
Jake, Carlos, Todd with two d’s. We should
read the names carefully through fumes
rising from rainbows of spilled gas on the station floor,
still pretty cheap. Full tank 13.69.
Removing the nozzle we should notice,
when the vagrant drop falls down, the liquid is still
pretty golden, pink dominates for an instant,
Doesn’t look like the blood of young men,
liquid from bodies: tears, semen, blood, urine,
acids, the yellow drop
of cheap gas has all those in it. Bodies lie
in the sand and the ancient forests feel them over
and over and stop growing—
The Hanging Gardens of Nebuchadnezzar had one
of each kind of flower. We didn’t bomb those.
The cruel king walked there with his personal servants;
we are his now.
We are tending the waters of cheap gas
where they fall. By the waters, slaves
lived for generations. By the waters
of Babylon they moved and spoke—
why don’t you come on back to the war
don’t be a tourist…
don’t invite me back to it, Leonard
it already lives here
in a man who jollied a joy stick and killed a kid—
a kid his command chain declared dog
but he knew
he knew it was a child
he knew half a world away
that sound in the sky we terrorize them with
by his own hand
lightened the drone’s load
and in the final seconds he saw him
before the ordinance exploded
before the silent white flash on his screen
before stepping out from an air-conditioned container
in Whothefuckarewe, New Mexico
ready to blast footpedalgas
fast enough to leave that bloodless hell