January 10, 2009KR BlogUncategorized

Doom’s Whim, Bride’s Trace

Tonight, in St. Louis’s spooky wet midnight wind, I’m reading Brenda Hillman‘s newest book of poems, Pieces of Air in the Epic, and catching up on NASA press releases. The story now (which is also a downloadable video and hundreds of addictively beautiful photos) is about how the space probe Cassini is going to circle Saturn, the sixth planet, for another two years, sending chirps of chemical, radar, spectrometric, magnetic and photographic data, until its plutonium-fired DC generators fail and it switches off for good.

Brenda Hillman’s self-expressed concern in poetry is this: “I am interested in the presence of spirit in matter and in how to have joy in a divided universe–that’s what my poetry is mainly about. My tools are irony, the image, the broken narrative, and an intensely personal voice.” Her poetry is following a Joni-Mitchell’s-1970s arc, becoming more oracular, more personal, formally stranger, and jazzier all at once. (Here she is on YouTube reading from her whole canon. Aren’t the new poems– really all of them– but especially the new poems– amazing??)

Although it smilingly tips toward terms from science and the mystical, her poetry is not especially cosmic. But reading Pieces of Air, I thought of little Cassini because both poet and space probe are keen-eyed and animate, tugged at by vast scary vacancies. Over the lonely course of its mission, Cassini has tested Einstein’s general theory of relativity; observed spumes of water shooting through the icy surface of Enceladus; dropped a probe onto the surface of Titan, the fog-shrouded moon with a surface of arroyos and lakes carved by methane rain; studied the composition of Saturn’s ashy, nebular rings; and taken this picture, of Saturn backlit by the sun. (This picture was computer-assembled from 165 images; that blue dot on the left in the rings is Earth. All images courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.) Hillman’s poetry is just as lively, and just as surrounded. A stanza of Hillman’s “Green Pants and a Bamboo Flute” goes:

One night in my vision place
Our future cars were buried
Today we drive a buried car
And turn like a three-part song
Electricity wants not to be anymore
Or to be darktricity
The brain is an atmosphere of rooms
A situation that needs a future
Where an us presides next to an it
Now the doom’s-whim-bride’s-trace
Fog doubles as a shroud

Hillman asks after a spirit (Spirit? perhaps half-capitalized) in matter. But her ruptured narratives– speech bits, half-cast scenes, unsourced bird calls, side stories leaking into the epic– suggest a complementary, opposite idea: that matter’s Intelligence is not quite intelligible; that our syntactical tools are not quite up to the job of (ecstatic? scientific?) experience. In “Doppler Effect in Diagram Three”:

People think they are you but they are not
You are you & no one & everything
The oscillating quality of dusk clashes with
What is universal just as the vowels
In a person’s name clash with his handwriting
How lovely we seem as the passenger pulls away
With an identity among the abstracted
Pale diners who eat behind the cellophane

Pale diners: I think about the company Saturn keeps– its moons Titan, Mimas, Rhea, Enceladus, Dione, Phoebe, Tethys, Iapetus, dozens of others; how their names are the prettiest in the whole solar system, and how Cassini, in its orbits, keeps finding more of them (the newest are called Tarqeq and Skoll). A day of the senses is– what?– a sonar beep, a sped-by window, an ice cream headache? Our instruments eyestruments soulstruments spectrometers succeed not because we see everything but because we’re bumped, by their guidance, into new unknowns.

(P.S. Hillman also co-edits New California Poetry, one of the best poetry series in the country. If you haven’t read Sarah Gridley or Fanny Howe yet, go here.)

Goodnight from a wind-encircled city!