Biography of Brenda Hillman
Brenda Hillman (born 1951 in Tucson, Arizona), is an American poet.
She was educated at Pomona College, and received her M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California. She also taught during a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.
Hillman met the writer Leonard Michaels (1933-2003) in Iowa City in 1975, they were married in Berkeley in 1976, which ended in divorce in the late 1980s. They had a daughter together. Currently, she is married to the poet Robert Hass.
Brenda Hillman Poems
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—
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:
The last ice age had been caused by a wobble. After it passed they made houses from stars; Visitors would peer in And see the tongs not slipping, Roomsized pebbles having been moved far. It's like this more When we speak than when we write; Loving thus we have been Loved by ground, The word being A box with four of its corners hidden; Everything else is round.
A brenda is missing—where is she? Summon the seeds & weeds, the desert whooshes. Phone the finch with the crowded beak; a little pretenda is learning to read in the afternoon near the cactus caves. Near oleander & pulpy caves with the click-click of the wren & the shkrrrr of the thrasher, a skinny pretenda is learning to read till the missing brenda is found. Drip of syllables like olives near the saguaro. Nancy Drew will find the secret in raincoats & wednesdays & sticks. Nancy whose spine is yellow or blue will find the brenda in 1962, Nancy who has no mother, who takes suggestions from her father & ignores them. Gleam goes the wren ignoring the thorn. They cannot tell the difference. Click of the smart dog's nails on linoleum. Nancy bends over the clues, of brenda's locket & dress. Word by word between syllables a clue. Where has the summer gone, the autumn— are they missing too? Maybe Nancy will parse the secret & read the book report on Nancy Drew: "neat pretty sly cute." Syllable by syllable & still no brenda! Nancy puts her hand to her forehead; is the missing girl in the iron bird? is the clue to the girl in the locket?
Each day the job gets up And rubs its eyes We are going to live on in dry amazement Workers push the granite bed under the avenue Bed of the married The re- the pre-married Making a form as forms become infinite The scrapings scraping Graywhacke chert People wait for their bumpy little pizzas Theories of theories in gravity voices Melpomene goddess of tragedy bathes Mostly the bride never the bridesmaid Angel food in whole foods Consider Tanguy whose lunar responses to childhood Made everything a horizon Those walking upside down don't know what to think The finch engineering itself to deep spring Or you life tired of being cured How many layers Of giving up are there One of it Two of everything in the arc you save
Describing Tattoos to a Cop
After Ed Sanders We'd been squatting near the worms in the White House lawn, protesting the Keystone Pipeline =$=$=$=$=$=$=>>; i could sense the dear worms through the grillwork fence, twists & coils of flexi-script, remaking the soil by resisting it ... After the ride in the police van telling jokes, our ziplocked handcuffs pretty tight, when the presiding officer asked: — Do you have any tattoos? — Yes, officer, i have two. — What are they? — Well, i have a black heart on my inner thigh & an alchemical sign on my ankle. — Please spell that? — Alchemical. A-L-C-H-E-M-I-C-A-L. — What is that? — It's basically a moon, a lily, a star & a flame. He started printing in the little square MOON, LILY, STAR Young white guy, seemed scared. One blurry tattoo on his inner wrist ... i should have asked about his, but couldn't cross that chasm. Outside, Ash Wednesday in our nation's capital. Dead grass, spring trees about to burst, two officers beside the newish van. Inside, alchemical notes for the next time —
—Once more the poem woke me up, the dark poem. I was ready for it; he was sleeping,
Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire
Titled after Satie I. Three pears ripen On the ledge. Weeks pass. They are a marriage. The middle one's the conversation The other two are having. He is their condition. Three wings without birds, Three feelings. How can they help themselves? They can't. How can they stay like that? They can. II. The pears are consulting. Business is bad this year, D'Anjou, Bartlett. They are psychiatrists, Patient and slick. Hunger reaches the hard stem. It will get rid of them. III. The pears are old women; They are the same. Slight rouge, Green braille dresses, They blush in unison. They will stay young. They will not ripen. In the new world, Ripeness is nothing.
The problem of time. Of there not being enough of it. My girl came to the study and said Help me; I told her I had a time problem which meant: I would die for you but I don't have ten minutes. Numbers hung in the math book like motel coathangers. The Lean Cuisine was burning like an ancient city: black at the edges, bubbly earth tones in the center. The latest thing they're saying is lack of time might be a "woman's problem." She sat there with her math book sobbing— (turned out to be prime factoring: whole numbers dangle in little nooses) Hawking says if you back up far enough it's not even an issue, time falls away into 'the curve' which is finite, boundaryless. Appointment book, soprano telephone— (beep End beep went the microwave) The hands fell off my watch in the night. I spoke to the spirit who took them, told her: Time is the funniest thing they invented. Had wakened from a big dream of love in a boat No time to get the watch fixed so the blank face lived for months in my dresser, no arrows for hands, just quartz intentions, just the pinocchio nose (before the lie) left in the center; the watch didn't have twenty minutes; neither did I. My girl was doing her gym clothes by herself; (red leaked toward black, then into the white insignia) I was grading papers, heard her call from the laundry room: Mama? Hawking says there are two types of it, real and imaginary (imaginary time must be like decaf), says it's meaningless to decide which is which but I say: there was tomorrow- and-a-half when I started thinking about it; now there's less than a day. More done. That's the thing that keeps being said. I thought I could get more done as in: fish stew from a book. As in: Versateller archon, then push-push-push the tired-tired around the track like a planet. Legs, remember him? Our love—when we stagger—lies down inside us. . . Hawking says there are little folds in time (actually he calls them wormholes) but I say: there's a universe beyond where they're hammering the brass cut-outs .. . Push us out in the boat and leave time here— (because: where in the plan was it written, You'll be too busy to close parentheses, the snapdragon's bunchy mouth needs water, even the caterpillar will hurry past you? Pulled the travel alarm to my face: the black behind the phosphorous argument kept the dark from being ruined. Opened the art book —saw the languorous wrists of the lady in Tissot's "Summer Evening." Relaxed. Turning gently. The glove (just slightly—but still:) "aghast"; opened Hawking, he says, time gets smoothed into a fourth dimension but I say space thought it up, as in: Let's make a baby space, and then it missed. Were seconds born early, and why didn't things unhappen also, such as the tree became Daphne. . . At the beginning of harvest, we felt the seven directions. Time did not visit us. We slept till noon. With one voice I called him, with one voice I let him sleep, remembering summer years ago, I had come to visit him in the house of last straws and when he returned above the garden of pears, he said our weeping caused the dew. . . I have borrowed the little boat and I say to him Come into the little boat, you were happy there; the evening reverses itself, we'll push out onto the pond, or onto the reflection of the pond, whichever one is eternal
~~ & thus you entered a forest of solitudes where in this great sense your life had been pursued, till like a shadow breaking off a rising body, a need hovered & grew. Some lined feature of another fate strives to be met, sits low & upright. Those qualities which had been energy or grace past pain wove from the nerves a nest or instinct. Your calms are interesting. Write to us during this terrible government. A universe coughs blue & draws a twiceness from the mitred now, while your garden hand spells the inexhaustible forms~~ FOR ELIZABETH ROBINSON
I passed through nature into the next. Children running in unsupervised shadows. Last century's fountains learning not to lie. Risk to identify with only one element since one will die but in the summer air around each thought, something is built and avoided. You go through an arch and aren't the arch, just infinity of form, curve's curve of becoming, a phrase tracking it to future's celadon relief. As others dressed as others we were supposed to meet. Citizens walked here without disappointment, seeing no statue or palace with eleven axes, patient in the mindless heat—
The shoe repairman works behind the married shoes, his whole hand inside the boot he's shining, everything cozy in the glass displays, laces paired on gravel he's spread out in the window, shoes placed as though they're walking, and beside them propped up, the wooden tongues of shoe horns, poised to serve the inanimate world ... He comes out mildly attentive, soft accent, possibly a Scottish childhood, possibly sheep to tend ... Clear day, first summer divorced in Berkeley, a time of seamless, indescribable grief; he waits kindly in his blue apron, fingering the well-worn inner sole, and I am grateful for those who serve us knowing nothing of our lives ... * The cleaner waits behind the silver bell; he's from Cambodia and has free Christian literature on the counter. He greets me with pleasant chatter, searches through the coats, some left for years, he says; they make a soft blue whistle as they circulate on the ovals like the ones under those automatic boats. As the clothes pass, little checks and prints under the whooshing of motion, I see my husband's coat— how long will I call him my husband—like an old friend passing by quickly not bothering to greet me. Odd now, I don't have to pick it up, the serious plaid will go around between the women's suits and stay all night. . . * I watch the young butcher flipping over the young chicken: he takes one wing and sort of spins it, first on its back, flinging the trimmed, watery lemon-colored fat into the trash, then before he starts on the legs he puts his hand so deeply in that the finger comes out the neck ... The other butcher sets the slab of beef under the saw: the riveting intricate swirl as the dead flesh pulls away; he goes off, shouts short words from the deep freeze— to me or to the carcass hanging by the shank?— I can wait, but the spaces can't, there's a slight ticking, then the carcass swings and swings ... Somehow I thought we would know everything through the flesh. Perhaps. But my days have become spirit. The young butcher splits the chicken down the back, seems to enjoy the crack of the knife as it enters the bone, so I try to. Housewives lean against the cool glass to convey holiday news and he responds without really looking up; I love that. * oh Berkeley summer mornings, aren't they— what? past the French Hotel, the glint of tiny spoons so briefly and soberly allowed to rest on white saucers, the plums just about over, the agapanthus—"lilies of denial"— in the center dividers, blooming, or just about to— like me, hearty and hesitant, not wanting to write it, not wanting to ruin the perfection of the poem by writing it . . . At the dentist, the little mirror, the dinosaur prong is put into the mouth. Mouth: the first darkness. Nearby: the mobile with straw eyeless fishes. The dentist will go home to her family, having briefly reached inside the visible mystery and found nothing ... I imagine Wisdom in the text is like this, creating the cosmos from the mind of God, looking interested and competent; she touches the physical place with her prong, and the pain shines ... (—a man told me I better think about my ‘system.' Oh dear! I better think about my ‘system'—!)
Often visitors there, saddened by lack of trees, go out to a promontory. Then, backed by the banded sunset, the trail of the Conquistadores, the father puts on the camera, the leather albatross, and has the children imitate saguaros. One at a time they stand there smiling, fingers up like the tines of a fork while the stately saguaro goes on being entered by wrens, diseases, and sunlight. The mother sits on a rock, arms folded across her breasts. To her the cactus looks scared, its needles like hair in cartoons. With its arms in preacher or waltz position, it gives the impression of great effort in every direction, like the mother. Thousands of these gray-green cacti cross the valley: nature repeating itself, children repeating nature, father repeating children and mother watching. Later, the children think the cactus was moral, had something to teach them, some survival technique or just regular beauty. But what else could it do? The only protection against death was to love solitude.
The labeled bins on the California hillside catch the glint and quarter-glint of passing cars. Families pull up with their interesting trash and start unloading: Here, sweetheart, this goes over in Newspaper. The bundle hits with a thud. Diet soda cans spin almost noiselessly down, and the sun- permitting bottles from a day's pleasure are tossed into Mixed Glass by the children who like to hear the smash, unknowable, chaotic, as matter greets itself and starts to change. What mystery is inside a thing! If we peered into the bin, we could see it waiting there, could believe everything is alive and specific and personal, could tell by the tilt of one bottle against the next that it's difficult to be singular, to have identity, to keep an outline safe in the terrors of space. Even the child knows this. Bye, bottle! she shouts, tossing it in; and the bottle lies there in the two o'clock position, temporarily itself, before being swept into the destiny of mixture. . . And what if some don't want to. What if some items in the piles of paper, the orange and blue envelopes from a magazine sweepstakes, numbers pressing through the cloudy windows with our names, some among those pale sheets curled with moisture, would rather stay as they are. It's spring; we've thrown away mistakes— tax forms, recipes, tennis-ball-sized drafts of poems—that which was blank shall be made blank again—but what if that failed letter wants to be a failure, not go back to pulp, and thought .. . Or across the parking lot, where light insists on changing the dull cans, a few cans don't want to be changed, though they should want to, shouldn't they, should want to be changed by light, light which is called sweet reason, honeyed, spectra, magnitude, light that goes from the parking lot looking helpless though it is matter that has been betrayed. . . All afternoon the bins are carried off by those who know about where things should go, who are used to the clatter the cans make, pouring out; and the families, who believed change would heal them are pulling away in their vans, slightly embarrassed by that which refused . . . The bins fill again with hard substances, the hills bear down with their fugitive gold, the pampas grass bending low to protect what was briefly certain and alive with hope.
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."