Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire

by Brenda Hillman
     
 

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Fire— its physical, symbolic, political, and spiritual forms—is the fourth and final subject in Brenda Hillman’s masterful series on the elements. Her previous volumes—Cascadia, Pieces of Air in the Epic, Practical Water—have addressed earth, air, and water. Here, Hillman evokes fire as metaphor and as event to chart subtle changes of…  See more details below

Overview

Fire— its physical, symbolic, political, and spiritual forms—is the fourth and final subject in Brenda Hillman’s masterful series on the elements. Her previous volumes—Cascadia, Pieces of Air in the Epic, Practical Water—have addressed earth, air, and water. Here, Hillman evokes fire as metaphor and as event to chart subtle changes of seasons during financial breakdown, environmental crisis, and street movements for social justice; she gathers factual data, earthly rhythms, chants to the dead, journal entries, and lyric fragments in the service of a radical animism. In the polyphony of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, the poet fuses the visionary, the political, and the personal to summon music and fire at once, calling the reader to be alive to the senses and to re-imagine a common life. This is major work by one of our most important writers. Check for the online reader’s companion at brendahillman.site.wesleyan.edu.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hillman’s fast-moving, energetic, and ample 10th collection blazes with indignation, gathers together motifs as for mass demonstration, and blazes among its topics. The last of four books based on the ancient elements (most recently, Practical Water), its one-page lyrics connect the origins of the Roman alphabet, children’s reading habits, topical cries against our present-day wars, the evils of genetically modified seeds, the structure of Greek tragedy (“Tiny first with hurt earth spirits/ as in Aeschylus”), prose essays on poetry and protest, daily life on a West Coast campus, and larger-scale objections to the way that human beings have treated the earth. “We intend to make some changes,” writes Hillman; “We hope to learn to breathe before we die.” That hope infuses and fuels the many associative leaps and jagged lines that surround it: “Around each word you’re reading/ there spins the unknowable flame.” Twelve poems in bifurcated lines, each a tribute to her mother, or to a mother, conclude the volume on a trustworthy note: “some are torn as in modernism/ some are stained.” Hillman’s fierce works can feel uncontrolled, or hastily assembled, but they can also feel Romantic in the very best sense, like prophecies: “Out in the dark, the diamond planet orbits the companion star as art circles the unnamable.” (Aug.)
From the Publisher

“Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire . . . celebrates poetry as a mode of sheer delight in the kinds of being that are committed to finding pleasure and freedom and connection as elementary conditions of being in the world.”—Charles Altieri, openhumanities.org/feedback

“Brenda Hillman’s latest poems blaze up like matches—they dance and flicker out by the bottom of the page . . . Hillman’s book reminds us that one of the functions of art is to disturb: to startle us out of the ossified, inflexible forms of the routine and conventional. In this, Hillman has a particularly American genius.”—Dana Levin, Boston Review

“Brenda Hillman possesses what many contemporary poets do not: both a political imagination and a poetic conscience. She does what Rosanna Warren says poets should do more often: she ‘wrestles with the polis.’ …Hillman’s mystical imagination, her exacting intelligence, and her sensuous play with words on the page often leads to a Mallarmé-like magic. These poems are about vision; like the sinewy forms in Blake’s cosmology, the elasticity of her poems require space, image, sound—well, it’s a whole new universe. Bravely, Hillman will take you there.”—Amy Pence, Colorado Review

“In Seasonal Works, perhaps the friction between the ephemeral and the eternal are the two timbers that give way to spark.”
—Erin Lyndal Martin, Rain Taxi online reviews

Library Journal
Hillman's ninth collection is also the fourth and final book in the poet's imaginative series on the elements after Cascadia (earth), Pieces of Air in the Epic (air), and Practical Water (water). The metaphor's finale, featuring fire, is visually intriguing, with a variety of poetic styles, fonts, and images, but ultimately disappointing. She takes on the difficult task of composing lines based on political themes, referencing drones and the Occupy movement. But concision and music are too often missing—"I'm grateful to Samuel Beckett & to my high school boyfriend whose drunk/ father yelled when we closed the door & read The Unnamable during the Tet/ offensive." Another distraction is the poet's tendency to be too self-referential—"As a heron stalks the smart frog,/ time stabs the mini-brenda"; "Big oil has bought everything but not my/ armpits, which are sweating in solidarity with the Commons before the/ 18th century Enclosure Acts." Hillman's poetic techniques—disjointed syntax, the breaking of words into syllables, startling images—create poems that are too often prosaic with images that are hard to envision. The poems that work best incorporate a sense of wordplay—"the vowel of an owl/ the owl of a vowel/ dives onto a warm body…"; it doesn't make sense but at least it delights. VERDICT Despite the importance of Hillman's subject matter—the fate of our country, the state of our world—too many poems miss the mark, resulting in an uninspiring collection. The reader's companion may be a good place to start with this collection: brendahillman.site.wesleyan.edu.—Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780819574145
Publisher:
Wesleyan University Press
Publication date:
08/22/2013
Series:
Wesleyan Poetry Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
128
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire


By Brenda Hillman

Wesleyan University Press

Copyright © 2013 Brenda Hillman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7415-2



CHAPTER 1

    TO SPIRITS OF FIRE AFTER HARVEST


    Between earth
    & its noun, i felt a fire ...

    — What does it mean by "i," Mrs?
    — It means, (& i quote): one
    of the vowels in the brain
    & some of the you's —;

    we were interested in the type of thing
    humans can't know,
    interested in kinds of think animals think
    — a rabbit or a skink! (Eumeces skiltonianus)
    when autumn brings a grammar,
    wasps circle the dry stalks
    & you can totally
    see through amber ankles dangling
    in dazzle under our lord the sun
    of literature —

    Between noon & its noun,
    there were ridged
    & golden runes on pumpkins ... bluish
    gourds — in the fields ...
    (their white eyes lined up
    inside) — Wait a sec. Please
    don't nail the door shut. The air is friendly
    & non-existent as Veronica's veil — ...

    Earth, don't torment your fool,
    your ambassador clown. Bring
    the x of oxygen & sex, a fox
    running sideways, through present noon —


    Some Kinds of Reading in Childhood


    Do you remember Picture Day?
    Then, when the packets came back —
    in each child's eyes:
    incomprehensible fire — ;
    you were ordinary,
    in the sense of: the endangered west; —
    your mother wiped the windshield
    with a shredded Kleenex
    (that's why you deserved your oily treats) —

    Inside the school, reading made sparks:
    peril, peril, peril-&-awe;
    outside the school, acres of signs
    in cellophane noon, where
    under the school, termites take
    the tasty beams into their bodies —
    [Incisitermes minor] delicate hairless arms ...
    Save the volcanoes for later,
    flame-folder. You did such a good job
    with the maps!

    The world has created a sickness
    but the sickness is being
    reversed ... Consonants
    can be reasoned with, but vowels
    start fires — now! breathing
    twice: Now! Here come
    the bandit occupiers:
    silence & meaning —


    The Fuel of an Infinite Life


    You argue with someone at work. The chemical change
    in your shadow meets the dry grass at the edge
    of his shadow like an adolescent planning on
    burning a field, or the love you wanted
    to have later with another, the memory of what
    your energy made before he began to speak.

    It is impossible to discuss anything with your boss
    because he has consulted the priest & they
    will never see you again —; you stored that
    in the chamber of geometric symbols, saying
    to the wings above the granary, there is the fact
    of the barren stalks, the pharaoh's dream

    of hunger, saying to yourself (a prophetic mute),
    the hour will come someday for fire until
    there are years of storing energy in these postures,
    drawing circles with bones from the nine names
    & lights that make words into sticks for
    winnowing the shadows of falsity or ridicule.

    Even the world, wide as it is, cannot exhaust
    the fuel of your life when you are one of
    the interpreters about to escape from the dream
    with your archived & flexible heat, trying
    to keep from hating them at the marketplace,
    to remember what would transform judgment

    into action if only you could abandon the gifts as if
    they were nothing, after you & the pharaoh's
    huts are long gone; the dream will not be
    idle when it touches the tip of the match
    to the willing field after the harvest —

    FOR BBH & SM


    GRAMMAR OF THIS LIFE AT NOON



    The immortals wait in the fields.

    & the newt under the laurel (a dragon
    whose three heads argued
    with themselves —),
    the push thistles, Celastrina echo butterfly
    with automatic semi-colons
    on its wings — ('twill hide
    under the clorox-
    cloud — & that's that! some punctuation
    is just too sensitive to
    be outside — )
    Stubby white
    teeth on that baby vole:
    smile on its face — screeep! like
    gnostic Jesus, its comma-comma-comma
    claws. Clause — verbless mosquito-egg
    daylight ...
    Worker, dreamer:
    your soul has slept with
    countesses so long
    his hands still smell like money!
    He says to himself:
    my lord the sun has thrown
    his sexual shadow upon me ... (oops!

    Where did it go?)
    — It's just fallen behind something.
    (What has?)
    — Whatever you lost.


    GEMINID SHOWERS & HEALTH CARE REFORM


    Behind the galaxy, there was a flute:
    sound was making love to sound;
    time was making sound
    to sexual, textual, lexical space —
    we worked too hard, we lay
    near fields from which they gathered plastics —
    mimics & contortionists — under the ping-ping
    of meteors, under made-up constellations;

    the planet flew through space junk
    while the Health Care Bill was being penned
    with pens from Chantix, pens from Lidoderm
    & Protinix, with pens
    from Actos, Lamosil, & Celebrex;

    late autumn made a fire in us;
    the cosmos waited for a sign;
    the soul was waiting for the mind,
    fat chickadees waited for sweet fennel
    [Foeniculum vulgare] & nameless
    asters on side streets where drones
    take violins to the Queen —
    what kind of drones?
    The sounds fly out, for thee —
    we slept as many as the anyway
    where meaning met material, that is,
    inside the personal,
    that is, for love of earth —


    LATE AUTUMN STORMS AT PIGEON POINT

    after Richard O. Moore


    Existence tells the lighthouse
    I am your pigeon, then crash!
    we didn't know
    it had a window!
    Autumn asks its summer:
    what if we are only sound
    tracking itself, flare
    of a fishing boat
    (the sea shines purple in);
    the body casts its shadow
    down the coast,
    noon onto the mezzanine —
    edge of a thought, a main
    but not the only thing. You struggle
    to endure your life,
    a screen of symbols made of fire;
    a nothing calls its something,
    its stray hope, no gain;
    anarchic music climbs
    the tower to turn
    the key inside to sing —


    AT THE SOLSTICE, A YELLOW FRAGMENT


    Our lord of literature
    visits my love,
    they have gone below,
    they have lost their way
    among the tablets
    of the dead —;

    preeeee — dark energy — woodrat
    in the pine, furred thing
    & the fine,
    a suffering among syllables, stops
    winter drops from cold, cold,
    miracle night (a fox
    deep in its hole under yellow
    thumbs of the chanterelles,
    (no: gold. Gold thumbs, Goldman Sachs
    pays no tax ... (baby goats
    in the pen, not blaming God,
    not blaming them —

    (alias: buried egg of the shallow-helmet turtle
    [Actinemys marmorata]
    alias: thanks for calling the White House
    comment line))))

    For your life had stamina
    from a childhood among priests
    & far in the night,
    beyond the human realm, a cry
    released the density of nature —


EARLY SIXTIES CHRISTMAS IN THE WEST

It takes all the strength of the girl & her mother holding the knife to slice the holiday bird. Lipton Onion Soup flakes floating in the pan. One pinch of irreverent parsley recalls a belief in plants having feelings. The father reads Camus by the fire. Each book is a Bethlehem. The crèche has an arch where violence is delayed.

    Around the teenage galaxy
    a halo of dark matter

    In the nearby desert iron & silicon

    Between the dimensions
    in a disciplined curved sleep
    fat cherubs assert their right to exist
    for they make more sense
    than McNamara about Communists


Patterns float independently on the girl's apron. Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes. Like Demeter, the mother is great at using leftovers, & the daughter finds a skill for bringing fragments from the dead: My. heart. aches. &. a. drowsy. numbness. The brothers play chess: thump-thump, wooden-skirted figures on ovals of green felt.


    THE VOWELS PASS BY IN ENGLISH

    — & the owl drops flowers
    from its eyes [Dentaria californica] —
    the raceme, the stubbed stem lands straight
    in the woods — as the ancients do;
    on a hazel branch, a cocoon
    hoists itself ... with a worm's mind —;

    i-eee is released in winter
    as humans hold bones to the fire —
    they were there a long time,
    (interpreting the dead loves
    as meaning seeped through the cracks
    of centuries held by everyone —);

    the ocean rises by inches — when
    the wave withdraws, plovers pick evidence
    from married footprints as the lyric does,
    or sanity ... Luminescent creatures
    sink red in the sand —
    for they have swallowed ... all 3 sunsets!

    & the vowels pass by in English,
    the ruined banisters of the A, a bridle-
    ring of the O, the saddle of the U
    brought from the underworld;
    i had to negotiate with devils
    to retrieve even this much
    from the language of the colonizers —


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman. Copyright © 2013 Brenda Hillman. Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Dana Levin
“Brenda Hillman’s latest poems blaze up like matches—they dance and flicker out by the bottom of the page . . . Hillman’s book reminds us that one of the functions of art is to disturb: to startle us out of the ossified, inflexible forms of the routine and conventional. In this, Hillman has a particularly American genius.”
Charles Altieri
“Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire . . . celebrates poetry as a mode of sheer delight in the kinds of being that are committed to finding pleasure and freedom and connection as elementary conditions of being in the world.”

Meet the Author

BRENDA HILLMAN is an activist, writer, and teacher. She has published nine collections of poetry, all from Wesleyan University Press, including Practical Water, for which she won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry. Hillman serves on the faculty of Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, as the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry.

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