Some Kinds of Forever Visit You
Brenda Hillman, Extra Hidden Life, among the Days. (Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 2018). 171pp.
Brenda Hillman’s tenth book of poems is Extra Hidden Life, among the Days, an expansive kaleidoscope of expression. Emotions collide, morphing into a brilliant connective web made of verse, conversation, and photographs, allowing for Hillman’s ethereal evocations to be anchored in the various forms of material reality she references. Her post-modern proclivities are easily recognizable in her experimental forms. Poetic structures become as unique and unpredictable as grooves on weathered stone. Familiar punctuation is turned into animal vocalizations or the face of Doric columns, even into the infamous Keystone Pipeline. Lichen is transformed into tildes on the page and, in the same vein, Hillman turns herself into a similar symbiotic creature in the form of “~i~.” Beyond these experiments, the poet plays with punctuation in slightly more subtle ways. Commas, dashes, and all the point-centric marks dot the page while negative space becomes vibrant and active. Verses then take the form of Hillman’s beloved nature trails where readers are guided by the lines in the sand, in the ink. These trails are anything but manicured lawns. Readers must step carefully to follow this master wayfarer. This is not to say that Hillman’s punctuation is clumsy or haphazard by any means. Instead, pacing becomes as natural, as difficult and rewarding, as the world outside of the poem.
Though it’s easy (and correct) to consider Hillman a post-modernist, it feels more accurate to focus on the surrealistic sensibility expressed in the collection. To that end, it’s important to emphasize that Hillman’s surreality is hardly some coldly intellectual enterprise. Investigations into grief and time are grounded in the dusty roots of scrub grass. These enigmas are carried through the miniature ecosystems that crawl along the ground, hovering above what humans think to be reality. For Hillman, reality and surreality are just the connected branches of her imagined “blaze of rhizomes.” It’s necessary to emphasize just how grounded Hillman’s take on surreality is. She reflects on the decade-long protest against “drones, racism, state killing, the death of species & so on” that she and other like-minded faculty and students have crammed weekly into the university lunch hour. This turns into an acceptance of the ridiculous state of things: “We hold up signs. It’s an absurd situation & it changes nothing.” Though largely ineffectual, these protests still persevere. Hand-drawn signs and Bob Marley on a boom-box won’t cure the social diseases of our time, but Hillman makes it clear that it’s worth holding onto even the most absurd rituals. “Polite white mothers” hold their own absurdities by shopping at the Moraga Safeway, and they will do so even “when the revolution comes.” Hillman and her fellow activists, however, have bided their time, and, “when the time comes, some will rise & some will dance & some will lay our bodies down.” Survival, it seems, comes in many forms.
For hints towards sustaining oneself in a harsh world, Hillman turns to the humble lichen, the symbiotic fusion between fungi and algae.
Some people think lichen looks dead but it is alive in its
dismantling. Some call it moss. It doesn’t matter what you call
it. Anything so radical & ordinary stands for something.
The lichen is perhaps the key metaphor to understanding this particular volume of Hillman’s work. It’s explored through a series of twenty-four “journal poems” in the chapter simply titled “Metaphor & Simile.” This non-plant is the physical conversation between two other equally mysterious natural entities. It quietly thrives in forgotten wildnernesses, decomposing what is often thought to be indestructible except in the cases of extreme force or time: stone. Its fortitude comes from its hybridity and its patient flexibility, an apt metaphor for surviving in today’s anxious political climate.
The focus of the book is not exclusively on the outside world, however. Grief infuses the pages of Hillman’s most experimental collection to date, reflecting the desperation of the current political climate but eventually pooling into more personal tragedies (though what is more personal than the political?). The fourth chapter is called “Two Elegies.” The first honors her father who passed away in 2015, the second is for the poet C. D. Wright who passed the year after. These poems realize the full potential of the elegy. Instead of inaccessible memorials for someone else’s grief, they feel wholly archetypal. The loss of a father becomes a search through history for how “meaning is made” as well as a meditation on the quirky “oddness of the living.” These moments of a life lived come through the pages in blurry family photos and quick snapshots of the botanical lives off well-trekked Tucson paths.
The visible is thick but the invisible is thicker. There,
meaning searches for itself. There, the soul moves
without wings, through vague altostratus.
The invisible jumps off the page, leaping just out of grasp. Who is this man, who is this daughter? Who is this father, who is this woman? These questions don’t rise out of some sort of voyeurism (consciously, at least). Instead, these individuals feel real–and maybe they are–so real and wonderful that it’s difficult to not feel some sort of envy. Maybe there’s a craving to know a man with such infectious cheer:
“‘Fred? I don’t think much about the / afterlife, this life is pretty damn good. I’m / sure something exists besides myself, but not much! Ha ha, write that one down, Brenda!’”
Yet, this envy is maybe not so much that. Hillman knows what it is, however: “You will always miss your father, listeners.” Sure, this feels sentimental, but the regret of never being able to fully know another person, especially the ones we come from, rings true.
A similar feeling comes through in the poem dedicated to C. D. Wright, “Her Presence Will Beyond Progress.” Hillman tries to make sense of the sudden loss: “She was here.” The poem whirls like a dust devil around this fact. The stark words repeat throughout and float upon the beauty of Hillman’s coping:
What moves in the mind?
The spirit world as valley wind?
A full memory with shining scales
A friend moves in the mind
When Hillman writes that this friend, this soul and memory, now exists in “the ecotone of the beyond,” the full understanding of her poetry starts to coalesce into one of her familiar snapshots. The eroded boundaries between reality, time, and memory become as promising as a desert oasis. The “extra hidden life among the years” is only found in the breaking down of barriers, in peering underneath the “lichen on the live oak.” Decomposition leads to revelatory transformation and the promise of apotheosis. Hillman’s poetry is extraordinary because it dives into the microscopic worlds that inhabit these liminal spaces. The hidden life found under the over-turned stones of experience and reflection are essential to surviving contemporary anxieties, whether political or something more existential. It becomes clear that Hillman has embraced these forms of life in her latest volume of poetry, allowing her to share her discoveries in a vital, beautiful collection. Extra Hidden Life, among the Days is a necessary read, a lifeline born from Hillman’s patient faith in the world.
Reviewed by Amanda Ogea
Amanda Ogea is a Louisiana native currently pursuing an M.A. at North Carolina State University where she processes her obsession with music through literary theory.