Few writers match the tenacity, courage and range of Brenda Hillman in seeking out a congruence between one’s non-verbal experience of the world and how language reflects it. Her poems command not only a fiercely demanding verbal range, but are also fearless in their investigations of the often-disconcerting emptiness of that non-verbal self.
Born in Tucson, Arizona, Ms. Hillman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at St. Mary’s College. Since the publication of her first book, White Dress, she has been celebrated as a singular talent: among Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, her 1993 collection Bright Existance was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; in 2005, she was awarded the William Carlos Williams Prize for Pieces of Air in the Epic; and Practical Water reiceved the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Alongside her linguistic engagements, she is also politically engaged, both through her ecopoetics—exemplified by her 4-book sequence focusing on the primordial elements earth, air, water and fire—and as a member of the woman-centered social justice group Code Pink.
Among her books, the 1997 volume Loose Sugar, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, offers a sense of liberation with playfully erotic tones in poems like “Male Nipples” (“—not utter, not useless, the uselessness of desire”) or in the alchemical womanhood of “Vanilla Continued” (“A mother’s sentence wretched from her body makes the unfillable interval”).
Ms. Hillman experiments with form in the sequence “blue codices,” which she describes as “Below the furnace, the ash.” Here we see the remnants of the poet’s labor, how the heat of her simmer leaves the residue of the mind’s fire. These verbal conglomerations insist that all language is available to discover the deep feelings that make up our lifeworld, and the forms stun with their testy and tricky asides that open up wholes of meaning. Yet there is always the sense that she does not want to stun the reader but challenge them, demanding that readers pay attention not only to the inscriptions on the page but also to how we ourselves are inscribed by the nature and culture around us. The poems are, to quote Gerald Manley Hopkins “Brute beauty and valor an act.” “I’m sorry it’s difficult,” she says in the poem “Trap Door,” “any easier would be a lie.”