Pieces of Air in the Epic
Brenda Hillman
Wesleyan University Press, $22.95 (cloth)

Despite the dark subjects that have populated her six prior collections of poetry—death, depression, and divorce, to name a few—Brenda Hillman is one of our most cheerful poets. Her lyric attitude is to be positive; even from the slough of despond she manages to find loveliness, humor, and even magic in the most mundane aspects of human life: a paper windmill used to decorate a gift, a green ladybug, daffodils that look like “dirt’s birthday candles.” This cheer has always implied a fundamental optimism, but in her new work Hillman’s perspective seems to have shifted.

In the days after reading her powerful and complicated new collection Pieces of Air in the Epic, the concluding lines of its first poem kept coming back to me:

We could have said
song outlasts poetry, words
are breath bricks to support
the guardless singing
project. We could have
meant song outlasts poetry.

Hillman isn’t saying definitively that song has replaced language—in other words, that poetry has reached its meaningful end—but she seems to be suggesting that such a thing is possible.

If Hillman has despaired, she certainly isn’t alone. Those of us who have opposed the Bush administration are weary, and many feel resigned. Make no mistake—these are political poems. Although Hillman hasn’t given up on the power of poetry to change the world, she is certainly worried. “You shouldn’t ever say / you’ll give up art. Why did you say that? Take it back,” she writes. Another poem, titled “The Value of Empty Protest,” confronts this same disquiet, declaring in its final lines, “nothing to sell but being / sold, mute hands clapping at the / why of whys—.”

It might be reductive to imagine Hillman perched between cheer and despair, but the problem of political poetry often brings us to an unresolvable dialectic: hope versus hopelessness, art versus use, word versus action. Writing a political lyric is an intrinsically contradictory act. Lyrics are personal; politics is collective. And politics invariably brings with it the leaden step of propaganda—sloganeering, speechifying, and a perilous lack of self-conscious ambiguity. “I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote,” wrote James Merrill. “To do so, I have learned, is to invite / The tread of a stone guest within my house.” Hillman understands this difficult intersection of the world and the word, the impossibly broken place where politics meets poetry.

This understanding inescapably recalls another poet who was similarly bedeviled. “Beauty is difficult,” Pound asserts; he should have said (as he should have known) that beauty in politics is difficult. Like The Cantos, Hillman’s new poems are a deliberate scramble of the real and the abstract, the lyric and the thuddingly rhetorical, the lovely and the mundane. “Waiting for the tech support person / to come back, rereading the epic,” Hillman writes, in a poem titled “Your Fate.” This is not unlike Pound’s project, which unabashedly juxtaposes ancient Chinese poetry with contemporary politics and with moments of astringent lyricism: “the sun as a golden eye / between dark cloud and the mountain.”

Collage and pastiche are our best-loved gifts from the moderns; we embrace them wholeheartedly, mixing the insipid products of popular culture with high art and even higher theory. But the age of modernism is over; in place of absolutes, we have uncertainties. In place of rules, we have a blurry liminal idea we call personal space. Pound (putting aside the bad politics and the worse bigotry) wanted to rewrite the canon, while Hillman aims to show just how far from the canon we live. Pound belonged to an age in which a poet could be jailed for what he wrote; in Hillman’s age, the jailers haven’t even heard of poetry. Modernism’s tyranny has been replaced by postmodernism’s anxiety: Is anybody listening? If they listened, would they care? “Students / dislike even thinking about Agamemnon,” she writes, and “They were mostly raised / in tanklike SUVs called Caravan or Quest; winds rarely visited them.” The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid all play a role here, as Hillman ponders the how and why of writing poems about politics in a world that seems bereft of literature and its attendant gift, self-knowledge.

The most gripping work in this collection is a series titled “Nine Untitled Epyllions.” An epyllion is a brief epic poem in the mode of Homer; in these poems, Hillman’s quirky, light touch shines. They are beautiful. “I am a seamstress,” she writes. “I have no country.” The poet is the seamstress, and she is sewing flags to be used and misused in wars she doesn’t believe in. “Hero, machine— / vowels color things but / only you provide distinction.” These poems are searing. “Maimed heart walled city,” she writes. “Over the centuries you’ve often wished / There was nothing / There is something.” That “something” is called war, and Hillman does not hesitate to address the hard heart of the matter. In these poems, too, the idea of epic is brought most forcibly to bear: she calls the Iraq war “a little epic,” making clear just how far we are from the immensity of classical struggle.

Hillman’s work has grown increasingly difficult; her earlier poems are more transparent, considerably more autobiographical, and on a smaller scale. Here, there is no trace of the “I,” no trace of the poet’s personal self as subject. As her work has tended further and further into post-Language poetics, it has become harder to understand but no less compelling and no less Hillmanesque. A flair for quirky description (“A backward wind tips Tahoe to the left”) and an Elizabeth Bishop–like gift for simile and metaphor (“pelicans seen flying hillward, / their beaks like cut-up credit cards”) are amply in evidence here. But the near-confessional self that spoke in earlier books, particularly Death Tractates (1992) and Bright Existence (1993), is nowhere to be found, as if the political had overwhelmed the personal. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the political has become the personal.

If politics is her subject and the idea of epic is her frame, air is her organizing principle. This collection is the second in a proposed tetralogy based upon the epics; Cascadia (2001), her previous book, took the earth as metaphor. Air recurs in these poems as subject—the rapidly decreasing oxygen in the Russian submarine Kursk, the air inside libraries, various kinds of wind. Air is also used as a connective device, linking and unifying the poems in the collection. Her use of the air motif speaks to her effort to universalize this work—air being perhaps the only thing that all humans exchange freely: “Something about breathing / The air inside a war.” Nearly every poem in the collection mentions air in some form, and many refer to our powerlessness over it. “Have memory on us winds,” and “the air tripling and crippling.”

This is important work. Hillman has become one of the most significant and instructive poets of our age, not least because of her stimulating fusion of experimental techniques and traditional lyric concerns. The new poems demonstrate Hillman’s capacity and willingness to take on cultural, rather than personal, struggles. Her character of the seamstress stands in for all of us who are affected by the Iraq war—really, by all wars—those of use who contribute unwillingly but ineluctably to the actions of our sovereign state. She points to this directly in a poem titled “String Theory Sutra” when she writes “I, it, we, you, he, they . . . am, is, are sick about America.” In this masterly long poem near the end of the collection, she returns to the idea of the poet as seamstress, skillfully intercalating a complex of recurring images and ideas: the Fates, the history of textiles, physics, and most importantly, the hows and whys of writing poetry. She also reiterates her ambivalence about art-making: “it’s not a . . . choice between art & life, we / know this now, but still: How / shall we live?” It is the final question. She doesn’t answer it, because there is no answer. This is the hard place Hillman has come to, and the hard place she wants us to see: “Lines mostly said as not-unsayable,” she writes. This is the guardless singing project. We can’t help writing poems, but what if writing poems doesn’t help?