In her eleventh book of poetry, Brenda Hillman has given us an expansive lyric—I want to say epic—of our times. The result: gorgeous and subtle, and the work of a poet at the height of her powers. In a Few Minutes Before Later is part of a sequence of books by the poet that take as their subject the nature of time, and our lives in its hold. Her last book, Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days took the day as its preoccupation, and this one measures our existence in minutes, which is to say it’s concerned with a certain kind of moment, a certain urgency, a certain fleeting eternity. Some of that urgency comes born of an awareness that one kind of ending—death—is closer than ever. Some of that urgency is the urgency of a sick world: a number of lines in the book are occasioned, it seems, by having to pack—having to think about packing—a few essential papers before running out of the house because of wildfires. Some of the urgency, then, is a tuning of the breath, of breathing in the stress and hellscape of a beautiful but troubled planet.
So there are six sections in the book: first “In Landscapes of Stress & Beauty,” which begins with “Micro-minutes on Your Way to Work” and “A Slightly Less Stressful Walk Uphill.” One of Hillman’s talents, by the way, is naming—the titles of her poems are always poems themselves. And, I should say, between each section are “[interruption stichomythia]”—brief almost catechetical poems that seem to hear two voices, arguing within the soul maybe, about the poetics of the poet, of the book, even as the book unfolds. These interruptions are brilliant and may be my favorite sequence in the book. For example, this, in its entirety, coming just before “Among Some Anapests at Civic Center,” on the verso of the spread, on mold-gray—or is it pale green—paper:
—there’s no such thing as political poetry
—yes there certainly is
—put it this way, there is no such thing as non-political poetry
—yes there is, actually
—what if the Sheriff sees that poem she just put in there
—he is totally not going to see that poem
Meanwhile, this, the book’s second section, addresses and, in some ways, subverts Hillman’s reputation: it’s called “Activism & Poetry—Some Brief Reports,” and calls out her own “‘What a good person I am’ tone,” but also brings poetry to the frontlines of hands-on action on behalf of democracy and the earth and women’s rights. This leads to—and sets up—the third section, a celebration of empowered femininity, a series of odes and meditations like “Winter Daybreak Stanzas for our Daughters,” as well as the fourth, “For Writers Who Are Having Trouble.”
The fifth sequence in the book, written during the pandemic—each poem, at the end, includes a subscript that notes the number of COVID infections on the day Hillman started composing the piece as well as that number on the day she finished drafting it—is called “The Sickness & the World Soul,” poems that struggle with the beauty of the world against the backdrop of grim daily statistics:
& bees visit the stamped flower
the moth falls back over
an incurved serrate oblong
toothing petal, toward
denticulate invader berry’s leaf
a second thickening;,
The collection finishes with the dazzling section “In a Few Minutes Before Later,” a portrait of the poet’s relationship with her husband, Robert Hass, a poem that, in its symbolic shimmering ways, tracks a great love through its emergent moments—a few minutes, meeting for one of the first times, in a kitchen—as well as its divergent ones, and all the ways it changes and ramifies. On one of the last pages there’s a little photograph of half a dozen chicken eggs. Hillman in her last three books has begun to embed striking, odd, typically thumbnail-sized photographs (and in this new collection little drawings) among her poems, and she has an artist’s eye for the image. Robust, different colors, these eggs look fresh, and they give me hope. Just before that picture, there’s an “Epithalamium for Anxiety & Energy,” a wedding of two of the elements that generate this poet’s singular poetics, this poet who says, seemingly of herself, “she’s not an abiding type”:
They lived behind the dazzle
of the didn’t & fate’s blind eye
looked out for them. For some moments
they were able to relax,
given no rain. At times everything seemed married.
Maybe it was adjusting
to the massive beauty, not being
brought to some healed place: anxiety & energy
a slight turn to the left, & there
language happened …
JESSE NATHAN: I’m so interested in the little interruption poems. How did those stichomythia emerge?
BRENDA HILLMAN: I think of them as voicelets and voicelings. The stichomythia series have been rolling through my poetry for a long time both as independent items and as parts of other poems. I was really pleased the genius book designer Jeff Clark made the stichomythia pages the same color as the mold of the orange on the cover! The voices in these pieces are dissatisfied and sassy about the writing process and push through the lyric utterance. I had several of them in Loose Sugar more than twenty years ago, though I didn’t call them “stichomythia” at that time, a word I fetched from drama of course. I like the idea of quick one-line response that seem drastic and witty, as in Jacobean drama and so on. I wrote some one-liners from these inner voices and started stringing them together, and I remember reading some of them at a Community of Writers benefit and people seemed interested in them, but they sounded very uncooked and random at the time, which is not in itself a problem, but I hate anything that sounds just “cute” or arbitrary so I had to connect them to the process of the book. Like all writers I’m both intimate with and a stranger to myself. Part of what is fun is to work within formal structures. These all have six lines.
A self-identified avant-garde friend told me in the ’80s that he hated the word “voice” in poetry. I don’t really know what to do with that idea. Maybe after Ashbery the whole concept of “voice” has to be rebuilt, but it seemed elitist at the time. You can’t get rid of the sound of human thought or speech in poetry and you shouldn’t, but I can see how it seemed the singular ego was dominating poetry at the time. My use of language fragment and/or of interrupted voices in this book comes after forty years of fiddling around with shards of “speakingness” and “writingness”—whether my friend wants to call them voices or not. I like the idea of utterances that push through things and there’s something impish about a couple of the voices, like the one saying it’s okay to email the students you’re not going to the climate strike. I’ve never really had consistent main “I” in my poems the way some poets do; it’s more like a bouquet of weedlike brendas ripped up from the ground by one of the brendas who is walking by. There was a lot of talk in the ’80s about subjectivity and the decentered self in literary theory and so on; I was interested in those conversations, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how to convey experience without seeming like the “egotistical sublime.” In graduate school, they kept telling us, find your voice, find your voice, but nearly fifty years after graduate school I am not convinced my poems need a unifying voice. I hope the reader will trust the sound of someone thinking through experiences. So that’s one thing.
Another thing is that the questions of interruption, disruption, disjunction, fragmentation, and polyvocalism have been much discussed in relation to modernism of the twentieth century. The brains of poets are very porous and spongelike, so hearing dialogues with literatures of the past and present is necessary. If I have risked some things and made some discoveries in language for others, these still might go with traditions of the past and with a tradition I hope to be forming. Art comes from art (even if one wants to create an object unique to the experience) so my use of any technique derives from stuff I’ve read, from a range of twentieth-century practices brought forward into this the present time. I’ve written extensively about my impatience with folks treating poetic fragment as if it were new. What I think my version of it brings is a merging of lyric intimacy, spiritual intuition, natural and constructed surfaces, especially in a time of ecological peril.
Another thought is that people treat poetic interruptions as if they were an exception, but, in fact, most people think most of the time in partial sentences, and poets like Niedecker or Guest learn to polish the fragment. I believe ragged lyric is how we really think and dream. Many poets clean up their sentences and “smoothify” the sound so it will be generic lyric. I have always felt a poet’s job is to represent our experience as perception comes in such strange ways, including our own mental syntax, or as my beloved Bob notes in “Listening and Making,” new rhythms are new perceptions.
Then I guess last but not least, there’s the fact that my particular life as a contemporary woman—not just my generic life as a human—has been a wild collage of West Coast working life. About thirty-five years ago after a divorce I began to draft poems in the middle of sentences because my life had broken up, my days were broken, and the smooth lyric did not represent my life; I was raising kids, dealing with chronic anxiety. Time was in shreds—shredded from an idea of whole time. The unfinished finished and the finished unfinished like those Kleenexes you forget to take out of jeans’ pockets in the washing machine then the shreds end up stuck all over the other clothes. I couldn’t finish tasks and polyphonies of daily life were full of overheard disjunctions, so the aesthetics of interruption and fragment have always been very personal to me. If you let your mind gather things, there is an aesthetic freedom to channel shards of birdsong, California popular culture, spiritual interventions of a slightly questionable advice-nurse telling the ego-soul to listen to the eco-soul. Plus, the factor of West Coast seasons and beautiful geographies, broken geologies, unsettled landscapes, and weathers, which have produced a couple of books for me. All the partial ends up being a whole.