Since Loose Sugar Brenda Hillman has been known for melding autobiography with fragmentation and postmodern scatter. Most people who have read Loose Sugar recall the last section of the book called “Loose Sugar” which locates the speaker as a child in Rio Preto within Getulio Vargas’s Brazil. The narrative of desire is very much present throughout the book with the presence of sugar standing in for the rudimentary desire a child has for it. Brazil itself seems like the place the speaker is crediting for acknowledging desire, for allowing oneself to become familiar with it and not having it be pinched off and strangled.
Practical Water continues in this vein of exploring the assemblage of autobiography out of the fragments of experience and knowledge. However, the speaker in this book is no longer the remembered child. The speaker is a woman who is unapologetic for the agenda she bears. This is the politically awakened self, not the self awakened by desire. As a result, mention of the body drops to a mere background whisper. The speaker’s voice in all of its externalized forms tends to focus on the environment. It understands that context (and how context is perceived) is crucial and that it is negotiated on a daily basis.
As always, Hillman employs a kind of stream-of-consciousness word play. It’s almost a situation of “first thought, best thought” that reminds one of Ginsberg a little with the glaring difference that Ginsberg’s eyeball kicks were designed to deliver epiphanies whereas Hillman’s stream of language twists and turns more. It s aim is to produce a map which elucidate the topography of her days as an idealistic citizen. The result is a kind of linguistic pointillism where all of the various fragments (read dots) seem a bit of a scramble up close, but as one pulls away, they begin to resemble a life in its entirety.
A sense of this can be had in the title piece where Hillman writes “The mind was split & mended / Each perception divided into more / & there were in the hearts of the water molecules / little branches perpendicular to thought” Is Hillman here speaking of a compositional approach that is akin to bacterial growth? A stray fragment is placed on the page (read petri dish) and the next morning there is a small stanza or two (read a colony or two) and by the week’s end the page is full (read the petri dish is one continuous carpet of bacteria with presumably local communities with different genomes).
The branches of thought also suggest fractalization, the many forking paths of a life. In “Practical Water” below one can see the mind splitting between politics and metaphysical nature gazer, between the steps to an ecology of consciousness and commentary on language and the connection between biology and sociology to finally reach a call and a hope for a personal ethics.
What does it mean to live a moral life
It is nearly impossible to think about this
We went down to the creek
The sides were filled
with tiny watery activities
The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more
& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought
Had lobbied the Congress but it was dead
Had written to the Committee on Understanding
Had written to the middle
middle of the middle
class but it was drinking
Had voted in cafes with shoplifters &
beekeepers stirring tea made of water
hitched to the green arc
An ethics occurs at the edge
of what we know
The creek goes underground about here
The spirits offer us a world of origins
Owl takes its call from the drawer of the sky
Unusually warm global warming day out
A tiny droplet shines
on a leaf & there your creek is found
It has borrowed something to
link itself to others
We carry ourselves through the days in code
DNA like Raskolnikov’s staircase neither
good nor bad in itself
Lower frequencies are the mind
What happened to the creek
is what happened
to the sentence in the twentieth century
It got social underground
You should make yourself uncomfortable
If not you who
Thrush comes out from the cottony
coyote bush glink-a-glink
turns a golden eyebrow to the ground
We run past the plant that smells like taco sauce
Recite words for water
weeter wader weetar vatn
[insert all languages here]
Poor Rimbaud didn’t know how to live
but he knew how to act
Red-legged frog in the pond sounds like him
Uncomfortable & say a spell:
blossom knit & heel affix
fiddle fern in the neck of the run
It’s hard to be water
to fall from faucets with fangs
to lie under trawlers as horizons
but you must
Your species can’t say it
You have to do spells & tag them
Uncomfortable & act like you mean it
Go to the world
Where is it
One of the things that I have always admired about Brenda Hillman’s work is that the techniques of fragmentation and jump-cutting that she uses are not primarily used to examine the social construction of the language we use in a kind of deconstructive display. They are used to examine and comment on the texture of a life. The bits are swirled so that we might be more informed about how a life is constructed, not how a text or a concept is constructed. In this way the ensemble is geared to carving out an ethics more than it is geared to indicating the gaps in the construction of texts.
In Practical Water the construction of a personal ethics seems to be the main thrust of the book. There are many different types of poems. Some are generative like “Rhopalic Aubade” which relies on Oulipo-like rules to proceed. Others are concrete-like with a dash of political activism (see “Request to Berkeley City Council Concerning Strawberry Creek”). At first I wondered if Hillman wasn’t treating her readers to peer over her shoulder while she brandished a series of exercises, but I came to realize that in her project of constructing a personal ethics in the book, one of the main components and ideals held to in this personal code is that of innovation and experimentation. She will not allow herself to be described as Al Gore described George W. Bush — incurious.
Nor will she allow herself to be comfortable, something that is always a difficult demon to face mid-life in the middle class. By extension, I don’t think she wants her reader to be comfortable either. There is a lot of verbiage in Practical Water, countless species names are invoked along the way (especially in poems like “Pacific Ocean” and “Hydrology of California: An Ecopoetical Alphabet”). At first I thought that this was overkill, that the mere excess of names, which surely I as a reader could not untangle in a single reading, was sensory overload, and I felt justified in shutting down. But as I reread these long pieces, I began to discern that the long litanies at the heart of them are designed to make the reader feel uncomfortable, the way Hillman herself presumably feels uncomfortable about the species’ disappearance. She has come to understand that discomfort precedes action. This is a legitimate motivation for action in the world. It is part of the personal ethics she is constructing.
However, is building a personal ethics and therefore suggesting it as a project for others a feasible project for a book or does it strike some readers as a means to parade one’s politics through the pages of a book (certainly it would not shock any reader of any of the three elemental —earth, air, water — books she has written, that Hillman is an avid environmentalist)? How else does one lead but by example? Is this just a parental tactic or is it relevant off the playground as well? This is a difficult question for me to resolve as I’m not sure that Americans have personal codes that they aspire to or are even interested in adopting. Is this a generational breach or is it the effects of thirty years of Reaganomics which have taught us that the only ideal that is worthy of adhering to is to get your own before somebody else gets yours.
So Practical Water appears in the age of American cynicism and appeals to American idealists, those who haven’t had the hope wrung out of them. It makes a passionate plea for the many unrecognized species that make their home in water and therefore remain invisible. It makes an impassioned plea for one to take on the role of politically-engaged citizen. It tries to stare down disillusionment and despair that leads to crisis.
Can you take the high road and still be awarded points for it? Is there a high road that isn’t susceptible to smear?
For Hillman the aims of the hopeful should not be driven by feasibility studies. One hopes because that is an essential aspect of being alive. To submit to anything other than hope is to abdicate one’s claim to existence.
My anarchist talks while I’m driving
(I’m tired but she is thriving —)
beside pylons in flood plains, near
marshes, culverts & storm drains, in
amethyst mornings & clear, past exiled
gulls, veils of oil, sooty dancers
& streams that are sometimes enough.
We must do something but what,
she asks. Pheasants fly into ditches;
fields bubble and broaden. The unknown
Future waits wrapped in itself like
a larva, almost alive & awake —
The concrete aspect of the arrow points ahead. Even the anarchist is carried along past inaction and indifference. The breadth of nature’s power overcomes its adversaries. It overcomes by being patient.
Another interesting poetic strategy that Hillman employs to a great extent in Practical Water is her textualizing the landscape. Letters and numbers become embedded there, and in doing this she seems to be equating texts and environments. Both, presumably, are to be read with care and special attention.
In “International Dateline”
A row of red hyphens exists in the sea in scales / of fish in dropped-back hours
In “Berkeley Water” (probably my favorite poem in the book because the joyous celebration of life aptly depicts the motiveless impulsive action in the face of nature)
Phonemes in water join / sixteen kinds of Napa tomatoes all / glitter & rondure
in “ The Covenant”
These bodies we’ll know only a few more decades
have become a series of yeses; yes to capillaries & leg veins’ h’s,
to x’s on hands bathed in aloe & sweet peppermint
and finally in “Economics in Washington” the numbers get into the fray (though they seem to be more insidious characters, appearing only to oppress the expression of individual humanity)
Chartreuse 4s talk to blue 8s
9s speak yellow
There is fever in the badges of the guards
Inside the Federal Reserve
humans twirl the national debt
on its orange 3s
& the gray are spinning too
Humans take a pile of blue 8s from a teacher in Des Moines
& spin them to day-traders in Cancun
The immaterial presses into the material so that its weight will be felt. Above the zen-like presence where motive has been dropped is crowded out by abstraction; distance from the immediate consequences with things is enhanced.
The human will is on trial, and it is not surprising then that the will to make meaning, the demand of immediate signification is willing to be dropped in Hillman’s lines. Often times I find myself at a long moment’s repose putting together the details of her lines. I emerge on the other side of the phrasing with inklings I am satisfied to languish in before I move on. The density of objects and these moments of abstraction can make Hillman’s texts a slow adventure, one that I am willing to undertake on the page. However, I continue to question if these poems read aloud are supposed to work the same way as they do when they are on the page.
A poem read aloud seems to insist on some sort of immediate comprehension, the game of signification is played at full force. The evocative nature of texts on the page doesn’t have the same kind of effect as, say, the evocative quality of music. I wonder why if I wander off and think about my dry cleaning while I listen to a symphony, why this doesn’t bother me. However, if my mind wanders while I’m at a poetry reading, I grow less tolerant. Would Hillman’s work read aloud allow me to say, “I have no idea what the hell you just said, but I felt good while you were saying it because my mind was fluid and loose and achieved some much needed release.” Is that the purpose of abstract poetry like other forms of art — to allow for exploration of a contemplative state?
However, I also wonder if the abstraction that a reader may feel in the midst of Hillman’s texts is also at odds with the zen-like presence at the heart of much of the book. Is the mind with all its gears clicking diametrically opposed to that state of grace achieved during a moment of witnessing the natural sublime?
Is this tension between the mind exercising itself and the mind divorced from making meaning necessary in the face of nature? Is it the existential battle we must endure as humans?
For example, when I’m out in nature I want to just sit and bask in the glow of a sunny day or a gaze into a sunset with nothing on my mind, but after I do this for a while, I find myself saying to myself, “Well, if you’re going to just sit here and not think anything, then frankly, I’m going to get a little bored with that, and I might have to move on.” I am restless in the face of nature.
I ask these questions because Practical Water makes me confront nature. It says that I should do so with authentic concern. It makes me wonder if I am up to the task if I can’t name a good number of species outside my door. The invocation of all the species in the book is a calling out to all of them to bring a moment of human witness, a moment not unlike having one’s name called so that a diploma can be received on the stage.
It is a book that weaves poetic technique with the personal life of the author, in particular that part of the self that is political, is environmentally aware. It makes a call for a reportorial poetics:
Reportorial Poetry, Trance, & Activism
Reportorial poetics can be used to record detail with immediacy while one is doing an action & thinking about something else.
Experience crosses over with that which is outside experience; the unknown receives this information as an aquifer receives replenishing rain. Meditative states can be used to cross material boundaries, to allow you to be in several places at once, such as Congress & ancient Babylon.
I recorded notes in Washington while attending hearings & participating in actions to make the record collective & personal. Working with trance while sitting in Congressional hearings I recorded details into a notebook.
IF bees can detect ultraviolet rays, there are surely more possibilities in language & government. The possible is boundless.
Whether or not you have strength to resist official versions that are devastating the earth & its creature, you could in any case send back reports. If political parties will not provide solutions, the good can occur when people gather in small groups to work for justice in each community using imagination without force.
People could leave their computers at least briefly to engage with others in public spaces. It is then the potential of each word comes forward.
If you have no time or strength, act without time or strength because they may follow. In the meantime you could imagine that you have them
So the meditative state that I find myself in reading Practical Water, crossing over many material boundaries, allows me to imagine the city of Curitiba, a small city of 3.5 million where 99% of people say they are happy to live there. This centrally-planned city has a mass transit system that is used by 85% of the population. 70% of its trash is recycled by citizens. There are more car owners per capita than anywhere in Brazil, and the population has doubled since 1974, yet auto traffic has declined by 30%, and atmospheric pollution is the lowest in Brazil. It is a monument to the human imagination and how a city can be engineered to be better (contrary to the cities of North America organized by market impulse). It is the result of strong vision, but it is also the result of good policy and good leadership.
So over the course of the last four books by Brenda Hillman, one may travel from Rio Preto to Curitiba (the destination of my imagination after reading Practical Water). Personal detail and poetic forms are in tow behind you. You’ll generally find yourself taking inventory of your imaginings and trances — and this will be the only way to proceed.