What Poetry Can Do: Brenda Hillman & Geoffrey G. O'Brien

Will these books affect public policy? Will either poet be invited on The Daily Show? Will either book become a talking point on Daily Kos? Probably not. But, that's okay. There are any number of ways to change the world.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

W. H. Auden, the great British poet, is famous for many things, including being the poet who claimed that poetry makes nothing happen. I have seen way too many people take that infamous line -- which appears in his lovely elegy to William Butler Yeats -- out of context. I have also seen way too many people quote that line with way too much glee; seeing it as an official verification of lameness, a poet waiving poetry's white flag. I'm pretty sure Auden had something other than the inefficacy of poetry in mind there . . .

A poet like Pablo Neruda spent most of his life writing poems he hoped would make things happen. It's hard to tell if it was Neruda's poems or Neruda himself who was ultimately responsible for the positives -- and the negatives -- we associate with him. But, that may not matter. After all, how can one tell the dancer from the dance? And, there we are, back to Yeats. Despite Auden, Yeats certainly believed poetry could make things happen. And he was right.

The question I suspect readers have at this point in the essay is this: Do the two poets whose work is under review here want to make things happen?

The next question I suspect would be a follow up along the lines of this: If the answer is yes, what?

I don't really feel so much like answering questions, but I do feel like writing about Brenda Hillman's remarkable Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), which was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award, and I'm going to begin with a series of contradictory claims: Brenda Hillman is angry. Brenda Hillman is full of joy. This is a book about rage. This is a book about love. This book is wildly experimental. This book is wildly accessible. This is a book about fire.

Everything is on fire in Hillman's world -- the earth, the air, the water, her vowels, her brain, her heart. It's all burning. Early in the book, it is the self: "Between earth / & its noun, I felt a fire . . ." Later on, it's both vowels and language: "i-eee is released in winter / as humans hold bones to the fire--." Frequently, the poet figures protest as a kind of fire, in this case through a series of strikers:

The day is finished; the port is closed.
Some carry fire in red shirts.
Some make sparks with their bikes.
Some bring boxes of burning words grown from roots
in the earth. Truckers
with flaming decals on their trucks.

There is a curious linguistic link between "strikers" and "fire" connected through the metaphor of potentiality. All either needs is movement to start a conflagration.

Indeed, almost every poem in Hillman's book lives in the associations we have with words like "fuel," "heat," "burn," "flame," "winter," "cold," "sun" and "warming." I say "words" and not "concepts" because Hillman is only partially interested in what ideas can do. She really wants to know what language can do. Can words truly ignite? Symbolic action is one thing; the marriage of symbol and action is another.


Thus, words become unlit matches themselves. Groups of them ordered into a book, awaiting the human touch to set them ablaze. How much of this power lies with the author and with the words? Hillman takes on this notion most complexly through her recurrent exploration of semiotic signifiers. She not only plays with consonants and vowels but other non-linguistic symbols as well. She also takes on the most incendiary semiotic code of all: Arabic. Letters are themselves signifiers, and each one is subject to dislocation and de-contextualization.

In "Autumn Ritual With Hate Turned Sideways," the poet resists the urge to turn hate on its head. Rather, she skews it, twits it, tips it over instead of merely inverting it:

Whack. Get well T. Won't kill with you.

Now. Being

able to breathe for the E,

breathe into the prongs. Slide on its back,

[author note to the reader: I cannot recreate in this program what comes next but picture three capital E's tipped to the left, as though they are sleeping. I'll illustrate with W's]


Put the E to bed. Get well, E.

Weird shapes around campfires
below the mind.

I love how Hillman mocks hate here. She tinkers with it, dismantles it. She takes away its semiotic power by divorcing signifier and signified. She renders hate useless, almost comic, wholly child like, infantile, in need of a nap.

In "Foggy Animast Morning in the Vineyard," t and h are lonely, but they are patient. They await their call to arms:

shadows wait under the strakes

as anarchy waits in the novel or sex

waits in college, a feeling

individual letters have before

a word is spelled--;

middle of summer

t t t t ermites riddle the wood

Later in the poem, Hillman makes a connection between these termites and poets, both of whom, like fire, live in the wood, as if to say the poet is an interminable worker, gnawing away at the tree of . . . something. Life? Hate? Ignorance? Knowledge?

Knowledge suits this book. It reads like a compendium of emotional knowledge. We see a poet feeling her way through data. We see a poet grappling with the limits of expression. We see a poet losing and regaining faith in language. Hillman's poems frequently reminded me of Paul Celan and the great Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, both of whom ripped into their native languages. Celan split German, tearing it apart, neutering it, rendering it almost harmless. Similarly punctured by suffering, Vallejo broke the colonizer's Spanish into fragments, vocatives, ridiculous sounds. He and Celan enact a violence on language so that we might feel through the words in our ears and heads and hearts the violence of history. It's no wonder then that Hillman finds the American alphabet in need of incineration, purgation. It is as though she wants to burn through language.

To counter written language's shortcomings, Hillman punctuates her book with something most unusual: photographs. Tiny photographs of her, her friends, other poets and other protesters illustrate the occasional poem, lending a sense of documentary expression to the poems. The effect of this is not just to verify but also to clarify. The photographs sensitize our intellect, as William Stott might say; they educate our emotions. It is rare to deploy photographs in a book of poems, but when taken together, they do rather remarkable work.

I want to return to that notion of work, actually to be more specific, the notion of working. With titles like "A Quiet Afternoon at the Office," "A Quiet Afternoon at the Office II," "Imitating A Squirrel at My Job," "To the Writing Students at Orientation," and "After a Very Long Difficult Day," Hillman seems to be commenting on how our daily duties burn us at both ends. Each Quiet Afternoon poems begin, ironically, with the same line: "When you're overwhelmed at your job." There is no question here, just a bald assumption that we are all overwhelmed at our jobs. To whelm is to drown something; to cover it completely with water so as to destroy. To submerge it. So, for Hillman, the grind of late capitalism literally extinguishes our fires. Poetry, she seems to be suggesting, might just be able to get us glowing again.

Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire is a profoundly humane work. In language that moves from the chatty to the experimental to the heightened to the rhetorical, Hillman shows us once again that poetry is itself a tireless worker, always already on our behalf.

"And then on Monday...it is back to work... back to the everyday... back to the daily grind... Four... million... wait for... the next Sunday. The end."

Those are the closing intertitles of the 1930 German film Menschen am Sonntag, better known in this country as People on Sunday, the title of which, Geoffrey G. O'Brien refigures as the title for his new collection (Wave Books, 2013). On one level, what awaits the various Berliners at film's end is the tedious treadmill of the work week. But on another more disturbing level, we as contemporary viewers know that what also awaits them is a fascist regime of unspeakable violence. The great question O'Brien's collection poses is this -- on the Sunday that is 2013, what awaits the good people of America?

Well, there is good news and bad news.

Like the Berliners in the film, the weekend of forced and rushed leisure is pretty much our only respite from the soul-flattening work week. Hounded and crushed by the demands of capital, numbed by commutes, distanced from neighbors and communities, alienated from our bodies and our real desires, we seem to be living as though every moment of every day is Monday morning. O'Brien's meditative poems -- both lyric and lapidary -- interrogate the forces that press us into patterns we don't recognize. The second poem in the book, entitled "At The Edge of the Bed," is a case study in the aesthetics of hesitation. Who is not more than than his best self before getting out of bed to go to work?

No one yet has ever chosen misery

Those that seem to have done so

Haven't any more than they have

Chosen this mist or is it rain

We would first have to own ourselves

Then give up on them entirely

The illusion of choice is part of the illusion of freedom, which is part of the illusion of enterprise. There is a temptation to read mist or rain symbolically, or at the very least metaphorically. The line is not, after all, "Chosen this sun or this sno-cone," which is a lot more fun. Mist and rain carry more complex, more foreboding connotations. Indeed, a few stanzas later, the poem turns on the tensions between "sunshine" and "the overcast," as though both are emblematic of the distinction between choice and demand. O'Brien returns to this motif in "The Names of Production," a poem I like a lot: "This poem was written at a time when the choice / Was between no choices and one other." What is the difference, the poet seems to be asking, between no choice and a fake choice? What indeed?


These opening lines -- in fact the entire poem -- reminds me a great deal of Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man," in which misery gets figured into wind, sound and even landscape itself. There, too, one is tempted to read the weather as a barometer of something. Stevens, the great poet of hesitation, feared his poems were too ethereal, that they looked too deeply inward rather than outward. I see O'Brien treading similar terrain. The default setting for these poems is what I might call a social abstraction. One tends to think of abstract poetry as overly contemplative, perhaps even solipsistic, but abstraction does not necessarily mean a removal or withdrawal from the world. Abstraction also occurs through diction, syntax and our comfort with the conceptual. O'Brien seems to be speculating about how the external is shaping the internal. Not surprisingly, his language fully embraces the long tradition of the lyric voice -- with one caveat. The poems are not love letters to the self; rather they internal meditations on outward maladies.

Take "Six Political Criteria," for example; a poem near the end of the collection. It begins thusly:

The world is still for you, the situation

Excellent, there is only a percent

Chance of anything happening.

Never before has our country been

So sliding along its seven days

Without a formula, the well plugged,

House retaken, bargaining done.

We must rise as if to see what is

Really going on among stones

Hunting heaven, in the towers

Hung up again outdoors

Where unmet needs fall back

Into enterprise.

A great deal is happening here. References to repossession, cultural malaise, faux optimism, mock American exceptionalism and that heavy tension between desire and the daily. That line "stones / Hunting heaven" is so Stevens it's scary, but that lyric image is buttressed by a notable straightfoward anxiety about the seven day work week, and a pleasing humor one does not expect in a poem so titled. Any time you get a mashup of the lyrical, political and comical, you know you're in a good place.

The best place in People on Sunday is the long poem "Winterreise," which is a sort of modified sonnet crown. It's impossible to provide a good synopsis of this twelve-part sequence, but I will leave you with the last few lines, as they are an unexpected but brilliant conclusion to an ambitious poem in which O'Brien, always the teacher, imagines a book of

the sort that bring

Governments down, maybe endlessly,

Without anything really changing

At all for the students, still 11:36 am.

In Berkeley as the women of Cairo

March to say again to the military

They'll walk with their something to lose

Past the steel reeds, and to say

Hey, I'm tired of dying.

We're not prepared for that last line. It is both flippant and poignant. How nice that poetry (like a song or a Saturday Night Live sketch) can be both. Again, an unpredictable contextualization transpires: students at Berkeley, Egyptian women protesting, the possibility of poetry actually speaking to both.

At first, it would appear that People on Sunday and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire do not have that much in common. The books are quite different structurally -- Hillman's contains around 90 poems, each of a page or less. O'Brien's is comprised of 23, many of which are fairly lengthy. Hillman's is more conversational, even chatty. There are photographs and drawings; there are some happy nonsensical moments. O'Brien's book is much more traditional, his tone more somber, more earnest. Hillman never capitalizes the first person singular "i" while O'Brien capitalizes the first letter of every word that begins a new line (a formal gesture some critics see as profoundly conservative). But, the two collections actually share a great deal. Both poets make the subject of the poem what Stevens called "the actual world" -- rather than the invented or imaginative world. Both try extremely hard to connect with readers, and both make themselves relevant. Both poets seem wary of poetry's ability to alter the social order, but both doggedly hope that it can.

On November 9, 2011, during the height of the occupy movement, Hillman and O'Brien, along with poet Robert Hass (Hillman's husband) and a host of other protesters were assaulted by police during a peaceful assembly on the Berkeley campus. Hass writes about the event in a fine essay for the The New York Times, and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I also wrote about it for this very publication, though in a far less compelling manner than Hass. Hillman revisits the attack in her moving essay-slash-prose poem "A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility," and while O'Brien is less specific, readers who know of his involvement will find one or two places where he veers his poem toward that day in Berkeley. Not surprisingly, both books warn of the country's slide toward fascism by way of increasing intolerance for free speech and assembly. The point is that this event -- like the event of poetry that both speaks truth to power and speaks powerful truths -- connects Hillman and O'Brien in more ways than mere geography. They are conjoined in a shared project to make poetry participate in the public discourse of this country.

Which brings me back to Auden and my initial questions about poetry's efficacy. What can poetry do? Hillman poses the same question in "In High Desert Under The Drones," which appears early in the book: "We read poetry near an Air Force base. Is poetry pointless? Maybe its points are moving, as in a fire."

Will these books affect public policy? Will either poet be invited on The Daily Show? Will either book become a talking point on Daily Kos? Probably not. But, that's okay. There are any number of ways to change the world.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot