Arielle Greenberg

Brenda Hillman
Wesleyan University Press, $12.95

A connection could be made between Cascadia and C.D. Wright's Deepstep Come Shining—both books, by two of the most interesting poets of their generation, are road trips in verse, exploring regional landscapes with love and reverence as well as with grave concern, light mocking, and real critique. Like Deepstep, Cascadia (the title comes from the name given to the prehistoric sea that existed where Berkeley is now) is an invigorating read, challenging and welcoming at once as it "mines" the state of California, where the poet lives and teaches, from ancient geological history to the present day.

Hillman is a poet with a wide-ranging sensibility, and that is one of this book's pleasures: the poems, although thematically focused, vary in form and tone from one to the next. But all are a mix of lyrical fragment and poignant narrative; all bring together scientific, geographic, vernacular and idiomatic language; all reflect a genuine concern about the land. This is environmental poetry without dogma, didactics or depression, and all the more powerful for it. In the second poem in the book, "El Niño Orgonon," Hillman considers the ocean:

its waves warm, its
sentences swell, until life, one of
the yeses between swirls, roundly, in
the form of beach parties with
center-colored balloons full of unused gases
from nearby stars that are suddenly
short of heat, moves to dreamishness

Many of the poems have this slightly dreamy quality, but they are also very much poems of the contemporary world; "Telluric Poptart," Hillman writes, or, in the poem "THE RISE OF THE NAPA HILLS," "The sea has receded a little. Mild layers stack up / without panic, like email." The reader will notice that there is, amid the humor, a sense of erosion-words beginning with the prefix UN abound, as in the poem "NEVER MINDSHAFT," in which she uses the words "undry," "unmade," and "under." The ground shifts beneath our feet, and sometimes falls away.

One of Hillman's talents is for formal innovation, and in Cascadia, there are poems bordered by typographic symbols, poems in which some words are printed in grayscale, and a poem in which the middle stanzas are stacked vertically between the two horizontal ones. There is also intricate rhyming and punning, as in these lines from "HALF THE HALF-NOCTURNES:"

                 don't call him

     if you love him; put one
     foot in front of the other,

     like prose; the violins would play
     so, the night would say

     so; they're loading the notebooks on
     a cart that erases its road—

Some of the poems in this collection are more abstract than others, but Hillman is adept at connecting with her readers even in difficult, disjunctive poems—at one point she comments, "Weather taught / you to write funny. When it stops/being wrecked, we'll write normally," thus succinctly summing up why challenging times and a changed culture demand challenging art and changed forms. Language is rooted to the earth, as in the poem "A Geology," where wordplay from the idea of an earthquake inspires "There are six major faults, there are skipped/verbs, there are more little / thoughts in California," and later, "The number of faults in middle California / is staggering—that is, we stagger / over them."

In the middle of Cascadia is "The Shirley Poem," based on letters written by a woman in California in the mid-1800s at the height of the Gold Rush. The poems is interesting historically, but it is also a rather bold use of such sources: while many poets try to hide their source materials, or blend them seamlessly into their own work, Hillman is open about what she has read, and simply quotes the original letters, surrounding them with personal and contemporary detail. Thus, at one point, we can assume that the poet is reading Shirley's writing in a diner—"Oroville's (they pronounce it) Corn-you-copia / Restaurant"—when she says,

     Temporary crush on the East Branch
     of the North Fork of the
     Feather River but shouldn't it be
     tines of a fork? Temporary crush
     on the fry-cook because of his
     Denver omelette. Permanent crush on the dead.

Similarly crush-worthy, affirmative and deeply felt, Hillman's work is that of a poet at peace with herself, using her heart and mind to bear witness to the world's afflictions and respond with compassion…and fine poems.



© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review