The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Instructions from the harridan Brenda Hillman

Rachael Conlin Levy

Self-described strict, bossy, belligerent old woman, the poet and harridan Brenda Hillman was a stranger to me, but no longer. I’m knee-deep in love with her poetry. As meaning ripples and eddies within stanzas, I’m caught in the frothy current of phrases and descriptions. Tumbling and rushing to the end of a poem, the end of a page, I’m heaved ashore only to turn the page to the next poem and plunge in again.

Delirious. I feel this crashing joy when I read Hillman’s poetry. I felt it last summer when I dove again and again and again and again into the icy Pacific. I threw my 46-year-old body into an ocean that swallowed me, tossed me, and spat me onto the shore. Seaweed stuck to my arms, sand stuck to my chest, and around my ankles I felt the ping, ping, ping of hopping sand fleas. Then I ran back into the sea.

We think of adulthood

as layers of panic, is it, is it, is it

A collection of stones sit on my mantel. I found the rocks as I sorted dirty laundry from a weekend spent on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. They fell from pants pockets and clattered to the bottom of the washing machine. I picked one up. It was dull gray, smooth, flat, and its heaviness provoked a desire to throw it. Among these rocks were smaller, rounder stones colored tan, white, jade, peach, ebony. My three sons had slipped them into their pockets as we hiked Rialto Beach. Cupping the rock, I remembered how February’s sun warmed me despite a cold wind. I watched my boys, all strong and thin-limbed, bend and reach for stones to send skipping into the breaking waves.

Soil, you’re the crushed

thoughts of stars

A hundred lines written by other people and arranged by you is a cento. This I learned from Hillman’s second husband and past poet laureate Robert Hass in his book “A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry.” Its title misleads; its intimidating 429 pages begins with the single line, then looks at two lines and their relationship to each other, then three lines and four lines, then into sonnets, odes, elegies, blank verse, prose poems and so on. The last chapters on rhythm, stress, and how to scan a poem leave me dazed. I look up the definition of enjambment. I like its stickiness, the way “en” and “ment” sandwich “jam,” how I choke on the globby, peanutty-ness of “b.” The word describes a sentence that runs over or spills from one poetic line to the next. Its opposite is the end-stop or when a poetic line ends at a grammatical ending or with a break such as a dash, a closing parenthesis, a comma or period.

I think when I speak,

I speak

in enjambed sentences. (I’m inclined

to misspell it with a second “m.”) Thoughts cling

to a precipice of lip, sticky

with pigment, oil and wax, while

kisses coated with carnauba, lead

acetate, and D&C Red No. 21

are wiped away

from the pimply cheeks of sons

who smack at words

swarming like bees [apis mellifera] overhead.

Meanwhile, I lick

end-stops of honey

clinging to a spoon.

“To say it another way,” Hass said, “the sentence is being, enjambment is excess of being, or being in process, reading toward itself. Which is its basic characteristic. Excess and instability and movement and change. The sentence moves and it arrests movement.”

Hass’s book will take time. I returned to the cento’s concrete one hundred lines that, he says, “can be arranged so that the lines from different sources and context make continuous sense. Or not.” I begin there, with Hillman.

The letters of this poem are also lucky to have a job for they are insects & addicts & thieves.

It was happy coincidence to discover Hillman this Earth Day, which drew hundreds of thousands into the streets to support scientific knowledge and protest the Trump administration’s policies. Her book of poetry “Seasonal Work with Letters on Fire” is filled with political calling.

The jailed work

of sentences served you.

In particular I like her prose poems, which are subversions of sentence and paragraph. Perhaps I’m drawn to what lies hidden within familiar form and construct, perhaps I’m drawn to their activism. Poems like “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump” are surreal, humorous, disturbing, compelling calls to action. Here’s the beginning of “Gas Pump.”

Soon it will be necessary to start a behavior of moaning outdoors when pumping gas … That capital S is a sort of gas nozzle. Pulling up, beginning a low moaning action, pulling a deep choral moan with cracks up through the body, the crude though the cracks of sea & earth, pulling neurotransmitters glutamate, acetylcholine, & others across chasms in the nervous system, into the larynx until the sound acts by itself. So we shred the song to continue. Meaning morning moaning mourning. i am able to complete 34 moans by the time i’ve filled half the tank. City-states outlawed open wailing because it was not good for democracy, but you will merely be embarrassed even if you drive a hybrid. Please be embarrassed. Please.

Inside the pump, you can hear a bird, a screech-covered pelican lugged out of the Gulf with 4 million tons of the used booms in nonleakable plastic, 13 million tons of liquid in nonleakable plastic 5 miles up the road — their 5 has a leak in it by the way — the moan fans out as you put your head down on the hood of your car; please moan though the other drivers are staring.

In a 2012 interview with Poetry Society of America, Hillman talked about the intersection of poetry and politics. She writes as a working mother and grandmother, as an activist for social justice and the environment who brings a “spiritually radical experience with the non-human world” and trance techniques to her writing practice.

Both poetry and political engagement can make radical claims on the human spirit. Our poetic sensibilities choose us without our control. But, we do have to choose a life that includes political struggle. I sometimes feel this great ring around human life, as if something is trying to protect us although we humans are clueless and feckless. Perhaps my belief in a spirit world is a way of protecting part of the mind with a metaphor, but honestly it all seems like a metaphor. Metaphor allows us to be several things at once so maybe it is the key to political activity, in that we can take the other person’s side. It seems important to stay worried and active and not to stop writing from our beautiful worried hearts. The world needs us to do this.

Her words are powerful, and the entire interview is worth reading.


2 responses to “Instructions from the harridan Brenda Hillman”

  1. Denise says:

    I loved your description of your time communing with the wild Pacific. And thanks for this introduction to Hillman. I’m looking forward to reading more of her words.

  2. Thanks, Denise. I can’t wait for summer to warm things up enough to test the waters again. And yes, go check out Hillman. Her poems are interesting, playful, passionate; great stuff all around.

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