Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Brenda Hillman’s poems invite the reader to pay as close attention to exact detail and concise word choice as she does. Listen to her read “Partita for Sparrows” and “Air in the Epic.” It is almost as if the language of the poems is compressed by the intensity with which she looks at the world.
Although sometimes Hillman herself almost seems surprised by the discoveries and associations she makes, she is perfectly willing to follow them wherever they lead. Go back and listen again to “Partita for Sparrows.” How could the writer or reader of the poem anticipate that final image?
Hillman has said that going to a poem is “not like going on Google and getting the answer…You go to a poem to get the mystery.” This is not to say she doesn’t value the kind of answers available through web-surfing or research. Neither of these poems could exist without their author’s knowledge of history and literary tradition. But perhaps for Hillman poetry is one way to approach those places where we don’t have any answers.
Toward the end of “Air in the Epic,” the speaker of the poem is aware of the terrible irony that her students “dislike even thinking about Agamemnon.” She sees the connection between the ancient war epic and their world, where their peers are dying in a war fought in the cradle of civilization. Yet, “even when they load/ their backpacks early & check the/ tiny screens embedded in their phones,” she can’t help but “love the human species.”
That unexpected epiphany gets at the heart of many of Hillman’s poems. It would be easy for the teacher in that classroom to assume the superior position of The One With All the Answers. But Hillman understands that knowledge is not enough. For her, all our intelligence, curiosity, imagination and compassion must be brought to bear on the struggle to be human. Outside of poetry, we might pretend we have the answers. Hillman’s poems invite us to accept living in the mystery.
The text of “Air in the Epic” can be found in her collection Pieces of Air in the Epic. “Partita for Sparrows” appears in Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries. Visit the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Poet Pages for a biography of Brenda Hillman.
Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye and others.