The poems in Brenda Hillman's new collection, a companion volume to her recent Death Tratates, offer a dynamic vision of a universe founded on the tensions between light and dark , existence and non-existence, male and female, spirit and matter. Informed in part by Gnostic concepts of the separate soul in search of its divine origins ("spirit held by matter"). This dualistic vision is cast in contemporary terms and seeks resolution of these tensions through acceptance.
About the Author
BRENDA HILLMAN is the author of Coffee, 3 A.M. (1982), and three other books of poetry published by Wesleyan University Press, White Dress (1985), Fortress (1989), and Death Tractates (1992). Her work has won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award for Poetry and the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Prize. She teaches at ST. Mary's College in Moraga, CA. Her other books, all published by Wesleyan, include Cascadia (2001), Loose Sugar (1997), Death Tractates (1992), and Fortress (1989).
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I. Twelve Dawns
"A veil exists between the world above and the realms that are below, and the shadow came into being beneath the veil, and that shadow became matter."
(from a Gnostic codex)
The thought that you could even save the light,
that you could stop it from having to be everywhere at once.
You stood in the ice cream shop and from the street, in a group of silly glass trumpets light came,
and broke into millions of itself, shattered from the pressure of being mute who knows how long.
There also, leaning against the counter the child who saw nothing but the bins of sweet color separately rimmed with silver.
Behind you, thoughtfully placed by the owners, a photo of an avalanche, its violence locked in blue spears ... The ice moved cruelly, one way only,
and behind the avalanche, and behind the posts that held it,
the cars went back and forth like mediators.
You who do not exist:
you stared along the edges of the freezer:
frost glistened and clustered.
Suddenly it looked as if one act could be completed,
mounting over and over, even under terrible pressure.
Perhaps the tiny crystals would last forever.
Once it seemed the function of poetry was to redeem our lives.
But it was not. It was to become indistinguishable from them.
— You lay down in your bed for ten years, and after ten years you got up. The room was full of weak color
but there was an interesting little hill of rich life from which all things streamed;
and you saw between existence and the fringe of your quotes non-
being on the wall an active shadow that could not reconcile itself to earth and was not ironical, that is, not split;
but nothing could be done without some cooperation between this shadow and whatever refused it in this world so you invited it in —
dark existence that comforts and terrifies —
bright existence that could not stay —
— Then in the scalloped leaves of the plane tree a series of short, sharp who's:
a little owl had learned to count.
You lay in your bed as usual not existing because of the bright edges pressing in.
All at once the black thick o's of the owl made the very diagram you needed.
Where there had been two kinds of infinity, now there was one!
The smudged circle around the soul was the one the gnostics saw around the cosmos,
the mathematical toy train, the snake eating its tail.
Relieved by the thought that the owl's o's had changed but not you, that something could change and not be lost in you,
you asked the voice for more existence and the voice said yes but you must understand I loved you not despite your great emptiness but because of your great emptiness —
— So you whispered to the soul Rise up!
but the soul was not ready.
— Get up! It's our turn! But that part of the soul stayed still. So you checked the list
of those who existed
but the soul was not on the list, the soul responded to none of those things.
Very well, you said. He sank back in his furs.
And you started across the plain to one he loved —
— Then how to address the place where the soul was not.
Should you have said, standing next to the trench,
this should have been you?
This darkness was not the terror of what we do to each other,
or the delicious sexual darkness he'd brought you or the black corridors of the female body —
remember the early diagrams,
what the inside of a woman looks like?
A cow's skull.
This darkness was the protection of the child,
it included the vast fluttering as the oak included the moths with its shadow —
remember in the brilliant day long ago,
the ball coming toward you?
You played with the other children like this —
not as anything —
blocked the sun with your nonbeing as it were,
but by that pewter shadow you could be affirmed ...
One by one they kissed you.
One by one the guests advanced themselves into the night where you would have been had they looked for you
though it was not in the dim night that you'd planned to receive them but at midday, when the druid oak blossomed with moths, with being gone —
— Two window shades: the stiff premonition forcing its way around them,
then the first sparrows, chipping through the ice.
And god lies beside you in his —
Wait. So god lies beside you in his brokenness covered with black feathers
and in his claw a small fish —
shiny and new — like a metaphor.
When Elijah came to the widow of Zarephath she was by the well — weren't they always by the well, lowering the gold rope of consciousness —
Elijah's need in the desert had been represented by the circle of black ravens holding fish and they were dazzling in the text — just dazzling! — and behind them
o the little tents of change O the tents of Ahab's men.
The widow trusted him though her son died, for Elijah had known one great moment of faithfulness.
And so this morning, though you cannot tolerate your life because it is so difficult, so "filled with promise"
think of the spirit of darkness that did not abandon you,
and the earth that rests outside you, wanting the form for which it was created —
— Remember the darkness of the beaten child all your days. Who was meant to protect her. They hid under the stairs.
The mother clung to her and beat her,
clung to her and beat her,
the carefully heard.
So much that child wanted the mother's good opinion but the mother never spoke well of her,
hating her flesh, its ignorant blood ...
Motherhood ... Look: dawn the color of the pietà. Motherhood is sorrow ...
You who do not exist: remember:
darkness created itself for the child;
she put that poem under the stairs of chaos but the edge still shines.
See what lies around you; look at his back.
Or at the dusty iris,
the hounds-tongue in the forest.
See your shadow in the dark — still gray grass,
some radiance above it:
everything has a border doesn't it?
the edge where light cannot get in
until joy knows the original wound.
Which is why the earth is feminine,
and the body, not the soul, cries out in heaven —
— In the pause between No, wait.
Between winter and the time you greeted it:
plum blossoms. Plum blossoms everywhere!
Always in this season there was this black self-conscious eye above the landscape,
one feverishly plucked, forties eyebrow arched like a fermata in music
watching the modern variations in pink all the way down Euclid Avenue — then
dizzy and with what hope you managed your predicament:
not to lose your shadow to the shared delirium of each tree.
One day it came to you.
Spring cried as you turned the numb soil.
Earthworms twisted warm cuneiform bodies, arching up in something — if it was not delight it was so much like delight —
and a rusty robin landed slowly as an old biplane,
shook the branch, and all the blossoms fell on you deliciously it was not sorrow
then you knew for the bird as for you the world split open was stunningly beautiful though being alive was nearly impossible —
— And right before daybreak the little owl returned:
two small solid o's,
like napkin holders.
Then the briefer, brighter o's of another bird of prey,
not a victim,
came across the field to welcome her.
Dawn has four stages. In the third,
everything chooses how much more it will become;
the door is the same color as the hinge,
poems fit into other poems, every life fits into every life,
bright into dark, not deciding.
the wall notices the shadow pulled out of the soul,
gray as a puritan
and the brave, dreamy hyacinth starts to be seen —
could the garden have said to the gardener, I made you grow? They were beside one another.
Could that which was not yet press forward in the world? It seemed for a brief time it could —
— Your shadow came to the wall one last time,
as the lioness comes to the stone gate of heaven.
It was the female ego, fueled by desire.
And you asked: our love, will he always
be with us? Dawn came in,
weak around the edges, a whorl of parafin.
So you waited, in your creatureliness, crouched
like an attic rat, you waited till spring,
you loved its glorious imitations
of being alive, young sparrows, their orange scribbles.
Then you asked again: our love,
will he always be with us?
and the voice behind the voice replied:
Always. Like yours, his fate was to exist even against your wall of hope.
So you got up. The islands winked
red, blue, white, in patriotic disagreement. Commuters began their orderly
bright care. Then, E E E,
chiff chiff. Notes from the cypress,
from one who did not doubt: a jay
sat on top as if he caused the tree to be there —
The first thought was rage —
In certain systems, the point at which that thought emerges from God's mind is his consort,
but before she turns her rage onto the world, the violent lords must give her the body of a woman which is not easy.
Imagine them standing around before they will trap God's vague thought into female flesh. The way their robes undulate, the slightly yellowing raiment —
They will not understand the rage.
It will be expressed forever in the split in things.
In the two-toned lupine,
in the cupped, silk lining of the tulip,
in the red and white of all armies in all wars,
it will bend over my dream wearing his face.
The moment my daughter was lifted from me, that sticky flesh screamed fury,
for she, too, blamed the female body —
I loved it that she screamed —
and I knew I had been sent to earth to understand that pain.
The nurses moved about, doing something over to the left. Probably weighing her on what looked like blue tin. The flash of nonexistence always at the edge of vision,
and in the next moment, some unasked-for radiance.
Under those lights,
the nurses seemed shabby —
the ivory lords, come haltingly into the bridal chamber, slightly yellowing raiment.
The last pain on earth will not be the central pain,
it will be the pain of the soul and not the body,
the pain of the body will be long since gone,
absorbed into the earth, which made it beautiful —
don't you love the word raiment?
Dawn comes in white raiment.
Something like that.
"And immediately Sophia stretched forth her finger and introduced light into matter, and she pursued it down to the region of chaos."
(from "The Hypostasis of the Archons")
The earth had wanted us all to itself.
The mountains wanted us back for themselves.
The numbered valleys of serpentine wanted us;
that's why it happened as it did, the split as if one slow gear turned beneath us ...
Then the Tuesday shoppers paused in the street and the tube that held the trout-colored train and the cords of action from triangular buildings and the terraced gardens that held camelias shook and shook, each flower a single thought.
Mothers and children took cover under tables.
I called out to her who was my life.
From under the table — I hid under the table that held the begonia with the fiery stem,
the stem that had been trying to root, that paused in its effort — I called to the child who was my life.
And understood, in the endless instant before she answered, how Pharaoh's army, seeing the ground break open, seeing the first fringed horses fall into the gap, made their vows,
that each heart changes, faced with a single awe and in that moment a promise is written out.
However we remember California later the earth we loved will know the truth:
that it wanted us back for itself with our mighty forms and our specific longings,
wanted them to be air and fire but they wouldn't;
the kestrel circled over a pine, which lasted,
the towhee who loved freedom, gathering seed during the shaking lasted, the painting released by the wall, the mark and hook we placed on the wall, and the nail, and the memory of driving the nail in, these also lasted —
The slender vessel used for weddings was also used for funerals.
Loutrophoros. Handles curled like rams' horns, and beneath some rigid frills,
the ghost-bride greets the master of the underworld. Are terra-cotta slaves running around with stylized gestures on the back of the vase?
Nothing is obvious but that the bride is confused. What was to be joy is not continuing. Jagged lightning designs. Death greets her like a senator.
I sat last night in a cheap cafe leaning on the dignity of a small table.
Worn carpet with an eighteenth century pattern. And all around the room,
bent over silver paperbacks, eating and being filled, others like myself, one writing a treatise on a napkin ... How did this sudden joy come in?
Joy by subtraction,
joy in the dim human realm ...
I thought of Wordsworth's formal joy fading in fourteen lines commending him to death or Herbert's childlike adjunct to renunciation ... No, it was the little adult joy he'd raised in me, pure, like the tube of space-time after an accident:
the worst has already happened!
I flattened the book; the plate of splendid vegetables arrived,
healthy food for the readers of Berkeley whose faces glow but not perfectly ... The owner slouched behind the counter,
selling his jars of night.
And under a grate on Center,
an iron ladder greeted the revised hell where the pool shimmered, filled the space that would transform the wedding. The death-
bride adjusts her tiara ... Freud walks to the desk; his favorite statue, bronze Athena,
has lost her spear. We grow up.
Joy becomes the missing event,
what reaches us unknown without wisdom. Joy is the spear.
In a side booth at MacDonald's before your music class you go up and down in your seat like an arpeggio under the poster of the talking hamburger:
two white eyes rolling around in the top bun, the thin patty of beef imitating the tongue of its animal nature.
You eat merrily. I watch the Oakland mommies,
trying to understand what it means to be "single."
* * *
Across from us, females of all ages surround the birthday girl.
Her pale lace and insufficient being can't keep them out of her circle.
Stripes of yellow and brown all over the place.
The poor in spirit have started to arrive,
the one with thick midwestern braids twisted like thought on her head; usually she brings her mother.
This week, no mother. She mouths her words anyway across the table, space-mama, time-mama,
mama who should be there.
* * *
Families in line: imagine all this translated by the cry of time moving through us,
this place a rubble. The gardens new generations will plant in this spot, and the food will go on in another order. This thought cheers me immensely.
That we will be there together, you still seven,
bending over the crops pretending to be royalty,
that the huge woman with one blind eye and dots like eyes all over her dress will also be there, eating with pleasure as she eats now, right up to the tissue paper,
peeling it back like bright exotic petals.
* * *
Last year, on the sun-spilled deck in Marin we ate grapes with the Russians;
the KGB man fingered them quickly and dutifully,
then, in a sad tone to us
"We must not eat them so fast,
we wait in line so long for these," he said.
* * *
The sight of food going into a woman's mouth made Byron sick. Food is a metaphor for existence.
When Mr. Egotistical Sublime, eating the pasta,
poked one finger into his mouth, he made a sound.
For some, the curve of the bell pepper seems sensual but it can worry you,
the slightly greasy feel of it.
* * *
The place I went with your father had an apartment to the left,
and in the window, twisted like a huge bowtie,
an old print bedspread. One day, when I looked over,
someone was watching us, a young girl.
The waiter had just brought the first thing:
an orange with an avocado sliced up CCCC in an oil of forceful herbs. I couldn't eat it.
The girl's face stood for something and from it, a little mindless daylight was reflected.
The businessmen at the next table were getting off on each other and the young chardonnay.
Their briefcases leaned against their ankles.
I watched the young girl's face because for an instant I had seen your face there,
unterrified, unhungry, and a little disdainful.
Then the waiter brought the food,
bands of black seared into it like the memory of a cage.
* * *
You smile over your burger, chattering brightly.
So often, at our sunny kitchen table,
hearing the mantra of the refrigerator,
I've thought there was nothing I could do but feed you;
and I've always loved the way you eat,
you eat selfishly, humming, bending the french fries to your will, your brown eyes spotting everything: the tall boy who has come in with his mother, repressed rage in espadrilles, and now carries the tray for her.
Oh this is fun, says the mother,
You stand there with mommy's purse.
And he stands there smiling after her,
holding all the patience in the world.
Excerpted from "Bright Existence"
Copyright © 1993 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.
Table of Contents
A Note about the Book,
I. Twelve Dawns,
II. Dark Matter,
Sorrow of Matter,
III. Gnostic Heaven,
IV. Bright Existence,