Practical Water
by Brenda Hillman
Wesleyan University Press, $22.95 (cloth)

Brenda Hillman’s new book is the third in her series of elemental meditations, following Cascadia (earth) and Pieces of Air in the Epic (air), which seek out political and emotional resonances mostly in the landscape of her home state of California. Hillman has charted her own unusual course, borrowing things—a mixture of conversational and high-lyric diction, an emphasis on language’s materiality, an interest in metaphysics and occult knowledge, and a passionate environmental and political consciousness—from pretty much every major poetic movement of the last century. Her recent experiments can be as confounding as they are exciting, utilizing everything from odd typographical arrangements and symbols to photographs in order to make their arguments. And indeed Practical Water has points to make. “What does it mean to live a moral life,” Hillman asks in the book’s title poem, sounding the collection’s central preoccupation. She answers it most often by portraying what is not moral: greed, male egocentrism, the use of language as propaganda. The most interesting poems here are based on congressional hearings that Hillman attended, the strongest moments of which seek out the humanity behind policy and policymakers, as when Hillman says, “i can see half a heart in each Congressman: / i can see the Deputy has a shaving cut & / a sunbeam shining through the skin of his left ear.” The least compelling moments are merely cynical, wary of vaguely haunting symbols of power like “the visible rimless justice raining down / from the eagle on the national seal.” Another series of sometimes-radiant poems follows the moon through the twelve months of the year, while poems on bodies of water caution against the destruction of the environment and praise nature’s rightness: “A molecule steps perpetually // into the present.” While somewhat less arresting than her previous two books, this is powerful protest poetry in response to the Bush years, motivated by the belief that there can be no political action without visionary conscience: “It’s up to you,” she tells our legislators, “to make brave gov- / ernment imagine things.”