Friday, April 21, 2006


One of the most endearing things about the wind is that it is impossible to harness it as it blows through you. Unless, of course, you happen to be Uakti. Then the wind blows through you and seduces as it does so.

In Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic the spirit of Uakti is alive and hypnotic. The phrasal clusters and perturbations from the exterior that Hillman assembles and merges together ring like the intonations of a bamboo flute droning in order to inspire a meditative state. Pieces of Air in the Epic is the second book in a proposed tetrology honoring the four elements. Cascadia was the first book dedicated to an examination of the metaphors of the earth. Pieces of Air in the Epic deals with air and its various manifestations—wind, whipper of dust, medium for sound and light, container of the vocable and song, matrix for aura, marker of the ineffable (such as the space between the vibrating strings of string theory) etc.

However, there is ample time spent “commenting/noting” the current political zeitgeist, as if it were unavoidable to have the tenor of our current political age to infiltrate one’s mental space. Such a piece early in the book is the following:

The Value of Empty Protest

Longing declined;
whatever had been charged with it,

what curls, what
octave flowers
angered the voice ramp

which for a while called
from their gray-rim signs
Come back to the stamped
as people cheered,

wearing an abyss
for the whorled
capitol, threads dangling

from their placards,
from misery of capital, known

as a crowd
in the crowd and
they would lose again,

as a wheel loses,
taste, past,
skies reptilian and vast,

nothing to sell but being
sold, mute hands clapping at the
why of whys—

This piece seems to be a nod toward the frustration of so many who, in the face of the current administrations’ predilection toward gut instinct, lament the current administration’s imperviousness to fact and data. The piece also seems to lament the American public’s perception of wearily being bought and sold. [Note: Number of consecutive years that the U.S. median income has failed to increase: 5; Number of consecutive years that the percentage of Americans living in poverty has increased: 4 (Harper’s Index November 2005)]

The intriguing aspect of this poem is whether to read the title as sincere or ironic. The speaker(s) seem(s) to point to acts of empty and useless protest with “placards” on the “stamped lawn.” Is the speaker(s) suggesting the value of this kind of protest is valueless? Or is the speaker suggesting there is something strangely cathartic in experiencing in vain protests as a manner of finding personal redemption? The last line seems to leave the speaker(s) in a state of wonder, in a state of awe at the bewildering force that shapes historical moments. Is this the value, the value in recognizing the point when things have taken a turn? Of course, this kind of perceived abstract distancing always inspires the ire of those who participated in the protest, inviting the query of who the speaker might be that he/she can afford such a privileged perspective and not be entangled in it (as they have chosen to be).

The strategy of the poem is to use rather oblique language to get at the themes mentioned above. This, as opposed to an explicit treatment of the protest scene and explicit commentary on the political subject matter, places the protest into the realm of the abstract. It is meant to be pondered as social phenomenon the way one contemplates a change in shape of a cloud or the consequences of a tectonic shift in 1906. This is to say that whatever is “going on” in Hillman’s poems, it is usually measured through the lens of contemplation and abstraction and the beautiful and terrible fractals that human history proliferates.

Of course, the medium of this abstraction (language) is also fair game for the poems’ speaker(s) to work on. Many pieces let the English language as a construct intrude, such as with “Study of Air in Triangles” where Hillman writes, “When I saw the world’s triangles, some letters came: / First a Y then N & especially A.” The letters occupy a nest and become sound that fills the evening. In this passage, one encounters a theme that is held to in nearly every piece throughout the book. The abstract is present, real, concrete, as concrete as birds’ beaks or the yellow meadow. But in the poem where language has been compared to birds, the speaker asks if “these birds be subject to a geometry”? Is there an ultimate form to the rambling nature of language, a Chomskian deep grammar or some other such structure. The speaker in “Study of Air in Triangles” posits a temporary structure that relates to the triangle, then the speaker reconfigures that structure so that its points align differently. This is the way that Hillman’s speaker(s) move through the world and through poems, confabulating and reconfabulating their physical and mental space.

While some may read Hillman’s work as “fragmented,” echoing the current critical term that is used to describe what Tony Hoagland calls “skittery,” I would use a slightly different term to describe her assemblages. The material, though disparate, does not fracture as much as it is allowed to intrude onto the trace of the poem, or as Hillman puts it so well, it is “side stories leaked into the epic, told by its lover the world.” The relationship of the disparate material to other disparate material in the poem is that of a lover’s relationship, not as agent of deconstruction reminding the reader that the mind’s constructs are fragile and not up to the task. Hillman asserts a more constructive position for the mind. It assembles, but it does so in a manner which suggests artifacts that are lovingly culled by a seasoned archaeologist whose main reason for culling is not to disprove that dinosaurs were a freakish collection of bones and teeth, but to ask questions about how they lived and what they thought about what how they lived.

If this is still fragmentation in some people’s eyes, then it is their task to live with this outlook. Another more fruitful question to ask is what is the spirit of assemblage that is present. Are the movements from one field to the next, rough cuts, jump cuts? Or do they move more slowly, inviting the reader to experience their languor? Are the movements slow accretions or undercuttings? Do they aim at a single revelation or, like their disparate sources, are they meant to reveal a panoply of refracted concepts without a singular conclusion?

A great example of a poem that is ambitious in its form and content and delivers marvelous complexity and breadth is, in my opinion, the centerpiece of the book, “String Theory Sutra.” The poem is divided into two columns. The left column proceeds down the page as single-spaced lines; however, the right hand column, beginning with line two, provides a short line followed by another double-spaced line. The effect is that the reader moves from 1) left column, line one 2) left column, line two 3) right column, line two 4) left column, line three 5) left column, line four 6) right column, line four and so on. The necessary crosstalk between columns suggests the importance of interplay and interaction in texts, primarily between that of reader and writer, but also between writer and subject matter. It is this weave of the thread that ties the form together with the threads of string theory. The poem touches on other ground too, how subjectivity is also threaded together,

The poem ranges from a small meditation on subjectivity, then it touches on the history of the spinning wheel, the nature of string theory and how it resembles the Bay Area community of poets. Then it heads for some quotidian observations made at a park and the insect noises that persist there. A “thread” is then picked up on where the speaker talks about different fabrics—flag cloth that is used as ties for airline pilots, women in medieval times whose weavings took on significance beyond the representational. The seam as metaphor for the poem emerges. The speaker then endeavors to sort out to whom it is presenting itself, who the “you” and the “they” is in the poem. The speaker embarks on the poetics of the poem, its project of making “meanings which hang tatters of dawn’s early light in wrinkled sections of / the druid oak with skinny linguistic branches, Indo-European roots & the weird particle earth spirits”

Dream voices appear. The speaker (imagines?) herself as a seamstress for the missing queen (one of the medieval seamstresses mentioned above? presumably so) A litany of fabrics is presented. An atheist doctor who says “God Bless You” in order to facilitate human connection with his patients is invoked. Then, the speaker heads back to string theory, using its threads as a metaphor for how meaning is sewn into a subjective state. Sisters of the speaker are invoked and told by the queen, “Be what you aren’t.” A short discourse on negation and opposition leads to a questioning of the long-term usefulness of revolution and the role of the nation-state versus the role of the tribe in the history of human social organization (the speaker seems to prefer atomization rather than consolidation . . . is this contrary to “sewing” metaphor in the rest of the poem?) 1937 nylon parachutes are brought into the mix. Churchill and Rimbaud appear. Another metaphor of “sewing,” that of the bringing together of opposites, the Hegelian dialectic, is presented. More lament about the current political state of affairs in America (a prevalent undertaking in the book) surfaces. A segue into Santayana’s “thin thread of calculable continuity” is risked and it bears fruit in the later notion that the thread that stitches together subjectivity can seem ineffable, elusive, shadow-like in its workings. The possibility that the stitching together of subjectivity is invented (like string theory itself) rears its head. The notion of the “stitching” being a mental construct is dealt with. Other motifs, like the flying shuttle and the parsing of the pronouns in the piece return. The reader is reminded that textiles sing and another litany of fabrics is used to ramify this idea.

Then the two lines that serve as the crescendo of this miraculous symphony appear: “Human fabric is dragged out, being is sewn with terror or awe / which is also joy. Einstein called mystery of existence ‘the fundamental emotion.’” Finally, the speaker asks, “How am / I so unreal & yet my thread is real.”

So the synopsis of this long poem, the trace of its path, its “thread,” only runs three paragraphs? Wouldn’t it just have been easier to type in the poem itself? Perhaps. But it would have been a time-consuming proposition as well as a formatting nightmare.

Yes, for those readers who prefer the fixed frame, this poem is not going to satisfy you the way someone with a good, firm, honest handshake would. That’s too bad. Sometimes people try to engage each other with their intelligence, with their language as both considered and playful thing. Is this not at least as legitimate a greeting as the embrace or the double kiss on the cheeks?

If one is interested in writing the long, multiplicitous, intellectually complex poem (by the way, are American poets still allowed to do this?), then “String Theory Sutra” is worth the price of admission for the whole book. It is that sparkling, dazzling jewel that you can’t take your eyes off.

It is one of the two finest long poems (the other being Bin Ramke’s “The Naming of Shadows and Colors”) that I have read in years.

One other kind of treatment that Hillman offers in the book is her rumination on numbers and their “airiness.”

Confused 3’s

Faint confused 3’s dialed from mobiles
Searching for signals from hire hovels

3’s from hire hovels airport users

Stock rubble NASDAQ making info bubble

Crookened stubble George’s W George’s III

U-Bahn girls’ hard-on-sized cell phones
Dialed 3’s snagged in nylon air

Invisibly 3’s = half-hearts sideways

God used 3’s tons of them

Walter B liebened Gretel poor 3-some helium
Face-down mystic Fraulein bitte fraulein please

Rehearten 3’s for no seized-on power

This more discontinuous presentation is a blatant experiment in language. In particular, it addresses the novelty of expression and how numerical terms are abundant within neologisms. The program of this kind of poem appears to be collage. The figures used in this collage indicate a world ruled by numbers that is inhumane and solely utilitarian. “NASDAQ bubbles”, “Face-down mystics,” and “half-hearts sideways” intimate this. The “seized-on power” for which 3’s are reheartened suggests that numerical fluency is the dominant mode of discourse. The legitimacy of numerical abstractions versus the illegitimacy of linguistic abstraction is even seconded by God whom the speaker informs, “used tons of 3’s.” The gist of the poems is that “a man with numbers can put your mind at ease” (as an obscure Paul Simon song puts it).

The juxtaposition of numerical abstracts next to linguistic abstracts occurs in a series of pieces. Hillman has “tribute” poems to 5, 6, and 7 also, and they all reside within the larger structure of “The Corporate Number Rescue Album.” Certainly not too far from the veiled surface is a condemnation of corporate culture.

Another interesting section of the book is the section entitled “Nine Untitled Epyllions.” An epyllion is a “little epic” that was cultivated in the Hellenistic era. It is a narrative that embraces mythological subjects and is characterized elaborate and vivid description, learned allusion, lengthy digression and an interest in psychology. It often narrated only a few events in the life of an epic hero, who is then humanized by being placed in an ordinary situation.

The epyllions that Hillman writes vacillate between white-print-on-black-background poems that are less narrative, almost verging on collage again to the black-print-on-white background poems that are lyrical expressions of a speaker that rapidly becomes decentered from its historical past as seamstress (a motif that is followed up in “String Theory Sutra”) into the present condition of America at war. The seamstress from the past comments on the excesses and stupidities of the war even as the seamstress sews the shroud flags. Everywhere American culture is under indictment.

Another sequence of poems that Hillman includes is the set of ten poems that seem to have a large library as their setting.

: : : An Oddness : : :

A scent rather quietly loves
the library. Readers look up: a
life of paper inside the great
Life: scent of greenly ravished civilization~~
dream of inspiration freed. When a
book is lifted from horizon’s steel
that mystery object spreads an oddness
each call number a timeling of
yellow math, its curve leftover from
epic. the mind had no periphery
for meaning, the several phoenician, sailing
sideways through vowels of the dead.

As the series progresses, the meditation on scholarship turns to comment on history, making meaning, the nature of thoughts (particularly odd ones), the casual slip into dualism and subsequently paradox, the presence of aura, etc. My rendering of these poems above does not do justice to the arrangement on the page. The lines are broken into 1, 2, and 3-word clusters with more than one space from the space bar separating them. This provides the appearance of air between the words, and Hillman is suggesting that in these passageways dust motes can do their thing. In “: : : Epoch of Dust : : :” she writes, “Between each word the century rests its nothing air.” The emptiness that presides is filled up with scattershot words that congeal to found their meanings together as a collective. Whether they are gleaned from other texts or poised at the threshold of experience and observation doesn’t matter because in Hillman’s world (and by extension, the reader’s as well) the source of language isn’t as important as the workmanship involved in putting the pieces of the fabric of a life together.

The ubiquitous odd thoughts that populate Pieces of Air in the Epic are the byproducts of a strange and large world whose bits recombine in unusual patterns. The crossings and connections are “like spare dreams of / citizens where abstraction and / the real could merge.” The presence of strangeness in all its is a celebration of vastness in the world more than it is any kind of tricky intellect designed to goad the reader into accepting the speaker’s brilliance. Pieces of Air in the Epic is a monument to a concerted mind pressing itself on the world (and, by contrast, a mind generous enough to let the world intrude) which results in some anomalous high-flying sparks.


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