This Consciousness So Outside My Own

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire
by Brenda Hillman
Wesleyan University Press, 2013

For the past decade and a half, Brenda Hillman has patiently and successfully pursued a project whose scope and ambition might derail lesser poets, a tetralogy of volumes that explores each of the cardinal elements—earth, air, water, and fire—as a material stage on which we play out our emotional, political, and environmental machinations.

Book cover with forest on fire.A quarter of the way through her last entry in the tetralogy, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, Hillman lays out, in direct and unironic terms, an efficacy for poetry that sums up what she has sought in the previous volumes, which first started appearing in 2001. She writes, in “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie,” that a poem “is its own action, performing practical miracles: / … to reflect … the contours of emotion / … to enter into collective bargaining with the political & the social.” Her ambitious “practical miracles” aspire to elevate contemporary American poetry so that it might include—via play and pleasure and a serious calling forth of accountability—a multi-faceted, contemporary experience in equally various forms and music. And she simply takes risks that push language in ways that most contemporary poets don’t dare. The marvel of this last volume is how she can balance a sense of playful exploration with a dire agenda: how the “poet can accompany acts of resistance so the planet won’t die of the human.”

The final volume in her tetralogy finds fire center stage, and there’s no better representative or figure to carry out her explorations of how language can capably warm and frighteningly transform whatever or whomever it engages. Hillman’s concerns—with dynamic individuals and the physical world, with the materiality of language, and with a gendered lens of ethically oriented receptivity—call for a sustained and sustaining consciousness that attends to the world that our very presence threatens.

The Mysteries of Relationality and Clarity in Sound

Hillman has spoken of the first impulse in the book’s first poem, “To Spirits of Fire After Harvest,” as emerging from seeing a field of pumpkins and marveling that “there’s all this other experience …  the things that humans are actually not inhabiting—it has nothing to do with my experience. It just bloomed like some great, some weird magical thing. It seemed like, oh, this consciousness is so outside my own.” She writes:

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—

These first three stanzas serve as a content-and-rhetorical primer of sorts for the entire book: a preposition that initiates the poem; a lower-case i that suggests humility, a consciousness that seeks to privilege and promote the consciousness of other living entities; quick shifts in pronoun case and voice, sometimes involving dialogue and an interlocutor who addresses the speaker as “Mrs” (later poems introduce a direct address of a “sister”); a cataphatic, naming sensibility that will repeatedly list, in italicized parentheticals or brackets, the genus and species after the common names of flora and fauna; and the first of many figurative (and rhetorical) repetitions that resurface throughout the text (here, a reference to “our lord the sun / of literature”).

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