cover artSeasonal Works with Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman is the fourth book in a poetry tetralogy in which each collection focuses on a different element. I have not read the other three and it is not necessary to have done so; there is no narrative or development of thoughts or idea to follow from a beginning to an end.

Hillman is an American poet as well as a translator who teaches at Saint Mary’s College in California. She is also an activist and member of Code Pink. She has won a number of awards including the LA Times Book Award for Poetry for Seasonal Works, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Hillman is very interested in form, not so much in a particular poetic form like sonnets or elegies, more like form as a boundary, a temporary container to bring some small bit of order to the wild and chaotic. Her poems push against the edges of form and sometimes violate the boundaries.

In this collection she sometimes takes delight in play with words and phrases like “the stalk market” and “spoken bird poetry” that made me smile with surprise and delight. And she has a wonderful imagination giving us poems in which lichen spell out words and stories and seeds rebel against Monsanto.

Words and letters and language are always doing strange things, reveal themselves to be dangerous and out of our control:

The world has created sickness

but the sickness is being

reversed … Consonants

can be reasoned with, but vowels

start fires—now! breathing

twice: Now! Here come

the bandit occupiers:

silence & meaning—

Some Kinds of Reading in Childhood

Behind the galaxy, there was a flute:

sound was making love to sound;

time was making sound

to sexual, textual, lexical space—

we worked too hard, we lay

near fields from which they gathered plastics—

mimic & contortionists—under the ping-ping

of meteors, under made-up constellations

‘Geminid Showers & Health Care Reform’

And one of my favorites:

Mama & i, we talk to plants, for

we are short girls close to the ground

& speech is the golden miracle—;

when we are out with our strangeness

in the west—she in her desert, i on a mountain

crouching near Lilium parvium

with the same amount of frail our mother feels,

—it will be quiet for a while but syllables

are there: inside a leaf, a syllable,

inside a syllable, a door—

‘The Practice of Talking to Plants’

I like the “we are short girls close to the ground” because I am too. Plus I also love the thought of a syllable being a door and that syllable and door are found in a leaf.

Hillman asks over and over, what is the point of poetry? What good can it do in the world?

Who is poetry for? Truth is, i don’t know. The folks at tailgate parties before

the game, in their lawn chairs—are they dying every day for lack of what is 

  found there?

‘Report on Visiting the District Office’

And she determines:

& though powerless to halt the destruction of bioregions, the poem can

be brought away from the computer. The poet can accompany acts of resist-

ance so the planet won’t die of the human.

‘Ecopoetics  Manifesto: A Draft for Angie’

The poems in this collection are environmentally focused. But unlike many poets who write about nature, Hillman does not take the lyrical romantic kind of course musing over the beauty of sunrise or fog on a mountain top. Instead she tends to take an activist approach, mixing the beauty and wonder of nature with trash and plastic and gas pumps. There is anger to be found over what humans do to nature and one another but there is also plenty of awe too. Always, however nature is never completely unadulterated and devoid of the human:

Deep in the earth,

an unprecedented seed.

Hearing leans from the words—

early, earth, hearth all have ears in them.

i can hardly bear it yet i go out.

—What can’t you bear? (which

by the way also has an ear in it.)

The tender exactingness, Electrons

swoon in the sword fern

‘Patience Swoons in the Sword Ferns’

Hillman’s poems take work, they are not always immediately accessible, but the work is worth it. I very much enjoyed the collection and plan to read the other three books in her elemental series. Hillman has a great website and has a few complete poems from the collection there should you want to investigate further.