An Ecstasy of Now: Brenda Hillman's Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, by Ashley Colley

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013) concludes Brenda Hillman’s tetralogy on the classical elements, a series that began in 2001 with Cascadia (which takes “earth” as its subject) and has since spiraled into a meditation on change—social and personal, linguistic and semantic, terrestrial and cosmic. Throughout the series, Hillman is aware of a future always already exerting itself on the present and grapples with her own contradictory calls for decisive action in a world (and universe) where nothing is certain. In her final installment, she abandons sanctioned methods of knowing and instead urges us to “reach out with [our] feelers” into the chaos beyond the local. 

As in the previous three collections, Seasonal Works takes advantage of the literal and symbolic properties of its assigned element: fire. In the first of the book’s two sections, titled “On the Miracle of Nameless Feeling,” fire becomes the synapse “Between earth / & its noun”—comprehension sparked “at the nexus of science & magic” that, like actual fire, is not fixed but spreads:

                              —& the thought went on without you,
                                   as you slept with the book in your lap
                                as the book slid down
                              to the moving floor,
                           as the A set one foot down
                        in the train of your thought … 

This insistence that thoughts—and language—have agency beyond human control is not new to Hillman’s tetralogy. In Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), she laments the fate of the war poem, “trapped” in the canon where it must perpetually contend with an ancient conception of war, and reminds us that the epic once had a “moving center” as an oral tradition “told by its lover, the world.” In Cascadia, she insists “syntax is the understudy for infinity”—a system that tends to ignite rather than delimit language’s semantic possibilities.

Meaning’s propensity to push past whatever language or intention we bind it in is both a miracle and a source of anxiety for Hillman. In the series’ penultimate collection Practical Water (2009), she observes “in the same spot as the annihilation / of the world, love / of existence stood,” wondering “could / art convey this without / violence?” In Seasonal Works, she is similarly skeptical of poetry’s ability to carry meaning ethically—particularly in the book’s attempts to respond to drone warfare, wherein to write anything besides the names of the dead seems a kind of violence: “Words started to fall out of sentences in earnest around the time of the first aerial bombs,” she writes, "...Is poetry pointless?"

In a language she suggests is “Exhausted from the unsayable,” Hillman abandons semantic certainty in her collection of “seasonal” poems on fire. The stock market becomes “the stalk market,” human panic “is it, is it, is it” turns to squirrel chatter, and the contrails of drones become “white writing, cilia, knitting, soul weaving, spine without nerves, dentures of the west, volcano experiments, geometry weather breath...” Words are permitted to riff, morph, and contradict, and meaning is replaced with sound-spurred feeling less interested in making a point—or, “Maybe its points are moving, as in a fire.” 

In the second half of the book, titled “A Sense of the Lively Unit,” the chasm Hillman identifies earlier between language and meaning becomes a chasm between people trying to understand each other. In “A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility,” one of several poems dedicated to her involvement in the Occupy movement, Hillman reflects on her attempt to understand police officers abusing peaceful protesters: 

                             Looking into their eyes, we think it’s possible to reach them. We reach                              out with my feelers…What will be called batons, nightsticks or                                          truncheons, clubs—are certain in the angle of the hitting ()()()()()()…                                we know the point is lost. The evening news reports resistance to                                      officers but not to bad money. Looking into their eyes trained not to                                meet other eyes…we think they are scared but not scared enough

Just as the consequence of a drone attack might get lost in poetic language, or the point of a protest lost in the gap between experience and report, Hillman also fears the loss of empathy between humans. “This is where poetry can be helpful,” she writes, “It makes extra helpful nerves between realities.” 

The synapses between realms in Hillman’s fire book are indeed powerful. A dizzying teleportation device, Seasonal Works macro-zooms us “Beyond air” where “galaxies whirl ceaselessly / as picnic salt,” then micro-zooms us—past the salt grains, past atoms even—to where “Electrons / swoon in the sword fern.” Her juxtapositions give us a sense of spatial as well as temporal simultaneity: “Just to the right of the mind, pines pushed up / from below…scrrrrrip! A million years pass.” Effectively, our attention (and Hillman’s own, it seems) is pushed beyond progressively larger realms of local awareness. At times, the reader might want to rest with “the newt under the laurel,” but Hillman relentlessly goads us out. “the planet flew through space junk / while the Health Care Bill was being penned,” she writes, urging us to extend our ethics of care beyond the human.

The book’s “Ecopoetics Minifesto” promises poems that “shuttle across binaries,” but Hillman seems equally interested in widening the fissures between them—perhaps to excavate what is lost there. “From cracks in the back / of the start of time,” she channels an array of human and non-human language that seems to "write itself." Between transcriptions of bird song and attention to lichen sprawling “in extravagant fonts,” “golden runes on pumpkins,” “fog’s wispy pre-writing,” mournful cries from deep in earth, and the voice of a skeptical reader all the while asking “What does it mean”—Hillman develops a radical poetics of listening that reaches “down to the first / dark where every cry has size.”

Hillman's impulse to break down “the barrier before between” (Cascadia) and excavate an unreachable truth—the “original flame” behind words or the experience of life in another’s body—has been a driving force in her tetralogy all along. But just as we’ve discovered the classical elements more accurately represent changing states of matter, the conclusion Hillman seems to rediscover is that what we thought was true or fundamental is always changing—the earth, language, meaning, morality, our bodies… In “Smart Galaxies Work With Our Mother,” a progression of poems interweaving cosmic imagery with language from a 1960’s Home & Garden Bulletin, Hillman reminds us that even the aether—Aristotle’s incorruptible fifth element—is constantly in flux: 

                            the cloth on earth                will age as now 
                            her fine skin 
                            decline reality                       gradually 
                            some galaxies                               some decline 
                                                                                        o mother abide 
                            beyond work                         letters & days 
                            universe                                  you second hand 
                            wedding dress                          infinity cloth 
                            cover her                           when she sleeps 
                            when she rests                      at night let us 
                            not let her not                          forget us 

Part prayer, part elegy, Seasonal Works’ final galaxy poems suggest that what we find beyond us might not be so different from what we find here. Our “space mother” dies just as our real mother does. “everything is everything,” Hillman writes, “earth air beauty fire wood water love blood, time is what you need to mix up & what is anything not god.” Like stars, which transform their present matter into immediate energy endlessly until they “go out,” Hillman urges us to channel the universe in “an ecstasy of now.” It is an uncertain action, but she assures us “a world will write itself” regardless:

                                      When  you wake, a style
                             of world shakes free
                                from the dream. It doesn’t stop
                                       when you go out;
                          it doesn’t stop when you come back
                                  as you were meant to— 

Ashley Colley

Ashley Colley is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writings have appeared in Catch UpCutBankHeavy Feather ReviewSmoking Glue Gun, and elsewhere. She is writing her first poetry collection, a bestiary inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s Animals in Motion. An Ohio native, she lives in Denver, Colorado.