To Love, Despite Collapse: A Review of Brenda Hillman's Extra Hidden Life, among the Days / by Peter LaBerge

BY CARA DEES

  Extra Hidden Life, among the Days , by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

Extra Hidden Life, among the Days, by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

Folded among Brenda Hillman’s tenth full-length poetry collection, Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (Wesleyan University Press 2018), are explorations of grief and loss, global warming and economic crisis, protests and violence against protests, feminism, the soul and its music. This new installment in Hillman’s œuvre has much in common with her four previous collections, each dedicated to and infused by one of the four elements. Like Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), Practical Water (2009), and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), Extra Hidden Life focuses on particular motifs – foremost among them, the “hidden” and necessary work of insect and plant life – which stitch each section together and lend her meditations on death and survival an imagistic unity. Through her emphasis on the microscopic or near-microscopic and its patient work of constructing and decaying, Hillman reminds us of the stakes of writing “in the twilight / of       a terrible year.” Piercing and brilliant, the collection calls on the reader not only to take action, but also to hear and “To love, despite / collapse, the life forms / reading to the wood.”

The five sections of Extra Hidden Life expand upon and echo back to one another. Hillman moves deftly from sorrow for the destruction of ecosystems and Native land, to the omnipresence of guns in the days “inside history where America is lost,” from the death of friends and family, to police violence against people of color. With her boundary-breaking forms, subtle and sudden shifts in tone and image, and startling fragmentations of her lines, Hillman pushes against an easy classification of her work. Indeed, she is not unlike the “great writers” mentioned in her poem, “Curl of Hair in a Drawer,” who are willing to “abandon their / camps & are burning the maps to stay warm.” Her poems spiral organically into and beyond themselves, grounded in the radiant physicality of body, nation, and planet.

Extra Hidden Life’s ruminations on the natural world—its embrace of wild syntax, its play of negative space, its foregrounding of activism and resistance—repeatedly put me in mind of Denise Levertov’s poetry, especially “Making Peace”: “A line of peace might appear / if we restructured the sentence our lives are making, / revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power, / questioned our needs, allowed / long pauses . . .” These poems speak to the need to restructure language and thought to better comprehend the world, to be willing to listen to what Levertov names the “syntax of mutual aid.” Frequently, Hillman incorporates color iPhone photos within the poems, so that her visual art seems to act as its own poetic line or to signify a new kind of punctuation. There is something breathing and beating and untamed in these forms, something simultaneously fluid and sharp. The speaker of “(untitled)” asserts that “The visible stands for everything, including the invisible.” The reader, plunged into the joyful, devastating world of these poems, is challenged to reconsider how they might learn to see the invisible in the visible, to love “the law  of the rock & dirt.”

In the middle section, “Metaphor & Simile,” the speaker welds together the words of Jean Toomer, Wallace Stevens, Rosa Parks, and Róża Luxemburg with images of algae, fungi, and lichen. Early in the section, which is composed of twenty-four “journal poems” inspired by the work of giovanni singleton and Robert Creeley, the speaker offers advice: “During the Can’t stand it / how to live:   skin in the yards, / life forms, species on stucco & bark.” As is true of other sections woven throughout Extra Hidden Life, the journal poems of “Metaphor & Simile” concern themselves with survival and the fight for survival, especially in spaces in which others wish to cause harm. In this way, fungi and lichen serve as a pattern for persistence, for how countless small forces can break down the destructive and the hopelessly cruel in “a cinnamon revolt...”:

          Not to despair yet to look out, to somehow chant
profound & blare each molecule existing here in
          circles at its will, something will outlast
          the scene, anthropocene, ~i~ write to you near
Xanthoparmelia here, “perhaps the most common
species” on granite, nameless energy
          till all of life seemed wrapped in it~

The study of the “hidden life” of forests and stone is thus a symbol of defiance, a hymn of gratitude, a protection spell, and an elegy for the fact that “you can’t write the names of species / Fast enough before they disappear.”   

Hillman threads themes of grieving and loss throughout each section, and the titular poem, “Extra Hidden Life, among the Days,” is particularly memorable. Dedicated to C.D. Wright, it features “extremophiles    , chemolithoautotrophs / & others with power for changing / not-life into lives,” an extended metaphor for the fierceness of Wright’s life and art:

The living prefer life    , mostly they do
              ,    they are ravenous
            ,    making shapes in groups
  as the dying grow        one thought
        until the end  , wanting more
              specifics ,     desert or delay
           until the i         drops away into
            i am not here  ,   the mineral other
pumps & vast vapors   , ridges & shadows beyond
         the single life it had not thought of–

Like the “i” that has dropped away and into extreme heat or cold, or like the heavy caesurae splitting the poem in two, Wright’s presence in the poem is also a rending absence. “Her Presence Will Live beyond Progress,” a long poem originally published as a chapbook by Albion Books (2017), is also dedicated to Wright and switches to a more confessional first-person lyric:

          i cling to her like a burr on a sock
    cling to her like a lipstick stain
cling like lichen on the live oak    breaking things down

    extra hidden life          among the days

Each line clings to the previous as the stanza drifts back toward the left-hand margin, before the next line again becomes untethered and independent. To be burr or stain or lichen is to “cling” for as long as possible to the living beloved; for the lichen in particular, “breaking things down” is both a deeply intimate and restorative act.

“The Rosewood Clauses,” an elegy for Hillman’s father, pairs grief and the looming threat of global warming with cacti and the silent industry of ants. Ants, figures of continuous work, invisible life, and decomposition, are also figures of incredible strength and endurance amidst disaster: “There is a / leaking out of everything. The ants / work underground; the invisible / is a communist.” Extra Hidden Life interrogates this unbearable sorrow from its opening section, “The Forests of Grief & Color.” Though several epigraphs headline the section, the excerpt from Judith Butler’s “On Grief and Rage” seems especially apropos: “Can we perhaps find one of the sources of nonviolence in the capacity to grieve, to stay with the unbearable loss without converting it into destruction?. . . if the grief is unbearable, is there another way to live with it that is not the same as bearing it?” Hillman offers a response, showing how grieving and living alongside the unbearable mirrors the struggle to save forests, animals, plants, and shores, democracy, and human life. At a moment in which “nothing / comes together anymore– / democracy & time, / from da: to divide–,” fighting for survival becomes a strategy for survival, itself. This collection urges the reader to not only brave the disillusionment and despair rampant in our politics and to stare down its indifference, but to also work alongside their own sorrow and fear, defiant and awake and “possessed of deep & vagrant joy.”

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Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, she was named the runner-up for the 2018 Third Coast Poetry Prize and a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Journal, and The Southeast Review. Her first manuscript was recently listed as a semifinalist or finalist for the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.