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The Politics of Renewing the Tongue

It hardly needs to be said that there’s plenty of crazed language in our public discourse. Surely this has always been the case, but just now the crazy is more evident than usual. Many are seizing the moment’s urgency by raising consciousness through a renewal of language. It’s in this spirit that I’ve been rereading Brenda Hillman’s poetry collection Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), whose title signals that we need to access the fire, the elemental energy, implicit in language, which can be both liberating and dangerous—but then, the dangers of failing to access the unpredictable energies of the tongue are surely greater. With her poems’ abrupt starts and stops, stark shifts of diction, and multiple modes of play—of sound, repetition, association—Hillman works to articulate these energies into our world:

          Inside the school, reading made sparks:

          peril, peril, peril-&-awe;

          outside the school, acres of signs

          in cellophane noon, where

          under the school, termites take

          the tasty beams into their bodies—

          [Incisitermes minor] delicate hairless arms…

(“Some Kinds of Reading in Childhood”)

These poems are themselves a school of the peril and awe of learning new ways to inhabit the language and world, where one complication is that parts of the old structure must give way—hence the images of termites that recur through the book.


A counterforce to language’s liberating power that keeps showing up through this collection, “our lord the sun / of literature—” (“To Spirits of Fire after Harvest”), is one I take to be a stable and even calcified representative of literature and language, a patriarchal figure policing the boundaries of canonical propriety. This figure is “that smart / italic guy over there waiting to be in a stanza: / Sat low our lord of literature / for he was very tired—” (“In the Room of Glass Breasts”); he is tired indeed, for the mode of language that he represents is worn down and out. He’s a master of literature’s mechanics, though unfortunately he and his language have become quite mechanized: “Our lord of literature / obliquely rests / like a dancer in her box / of limits” (“The Second Half of the Survey”). He dances perfectly round and round, but he can do this one thing only—nothing else occurs, or even occurs to him. Another complication to keeping the language and literature moving is that this figure of stasis is not merely that “italic guy over there,” but also a force woven into the very texture of the words we speak, so that the poet exclaims, in “Something has been Reading the Fireroots,” “stop telling us / what to do, Indo-European languages!” But for those of us speaking and writing in one of these tongues, we have to use the very language constraining us to create a counter-tongue.


Hillman reminds us that we need to get to the language’s underground forces, its chthonic energies, to reach into its renewal; it’s an energy readily available in the language, as long as one knows how to access it, for “vowels / start fires” (“Some Kinds of Reading in Childhood”), and there are “burning words grown from roots / in the earth” (“Types of Fire at the Strike”), so that in “the woods, the lichen falls quietly, / half-algae, half-fungus like poetry” (“The Nets between Solstice & Equinox”); if we can tap into this ground, the poems will grow. One passage I’m especially drawn back to comes from “Report on Visiting the District Office”:

But the system makes us crazy; we’ve become harpies, harridans, banshees, devils moaning at the gas pump. In The Oresteia, underground Furies are paid off by the rational sky gods. Let’s be nice now. i want my representative to shriek in Congress, not be polite. Here we are in his office—3 women, 2 poems. i am grateful for their company. We are powerless to save the pelicans & the manatees. Big oil has bought everything but not my armpits, which are sweating in solidarity with the Commons before the 18th century enclosure acts.

The poet puts herself and her companion activists in solidarity with the “underground Furies” and other disruptive figures, striving to prevent the “rational sky gods”—associated, no doubt, with the sun lord of literature—from buying them off. She would therefore have her representative avoid speaking politely, according to protocol, to Congress, but rather to shriek like one of those Celtic banshees that scream at the moment of someone’s death, thus announcing, in this context, the death of the old order of big oil and the language and mode of life supporting it, where we find “a corporation now a person” (“A Short Walk During Late Capitalism”), which inevitably means that persons come to be regarded as things.


As this book bears witness, the renewal of language also calls for physical commitment, as signaled by the photograph that disrupts the passage just quoted, the image of the three women undertaking their intervention—the bodies of the protestors intruding on the language that gathers around the image. Similarly, Hillman appeals to the smell of the physical body as an intrusion into attempts to control the bodies of fellow beings by means of the various “Enclosure Acts” that to this day lay claim to the common holdings of the planet. The distinctive body, with its ownmost smell, will not be bought. Hillman’s is an activist poetics that holds at its heart the obligation to renew the language and the world—the two must work together.