The Poems Beneath Our Feet

Brenda Hillman, the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at Saint Mary's College, discusses her books on the ancient Greek elements, particularly her book on the earth, with Saint Mary's Poetry Editor Christopher Sindt.

Christopher Sindt: You just completed the third of a four-book sequence based on the four classical elements earth, air, water and fire. Where did the idea for this sequence come from?

Brenda Hillman: It came directly out of my poetic practice. I had been interested in matter-spirit conversations for some time. Then I became interested in alchemy and esoteric spiritual practices and wisdom traditions. I thought about the four classical elements because they're always coming up quite often in teaching Greek Thought, for example. The business of what constitutes the substance of reality interests me in poetry, and I like to let things develop organically, so I made a whole book of earth Cascadia. And then I thought I'd just try to do a tetralogy. I started working on air as a form of meditation, and that continued the project, and then I worked on water.

CS How did you pick the sequence of the elements?

BH Earth pushed itself into first place because I started with a long poem "A Geology" that has to do with consciousness, love, the perilously changing nature of earth. In the next book I meditated on the element of air; air seemed an antidote to territoriality because I was writing at the start of the Iraq war. I decided to do water next because I was worried about it our drought conditions, having grown up in a desert. Water turned out to be a very gratifying, cooperative element to consider. I worked on water poems for four years. I saved fire till last.

CS I wondered if you were saving fire until last because it was so exciting or because you were fearful of it.

BH In astrological terms, I'm a triple fire sign. I have Aries, Sagittarius and Leo, so I'm very full of fire. Water turned out to be the easiest of all so far; I didn't have to be afraid.

CS Could you tell me about the research in California geology that helped you write Cascadia?

BH My relationship to scientific knowledge, like my relationship to philosophical knowledge and other disciplines, is somewhat free. I did a lot of reading in science and geographical monographs from UC Press and geology field books. I just loved reading about geology. I used it in a sampling sort of way. Bits and pieces are borrowed liberally and rather freely.

CS How does geology work as a metaphor?

BH Cascadia came out of the sense that human experience, psychological experience and spiritual experience are not unlike the dynamic processes of the earth. California geology is a great metaphor not just for the syntax of language, the way a sentence or thought buckles and folds under itself and makes mountains and makes valleys, but also for psychological experience for the way the mind works, and the way it fractures, fragments and doesn't give us anything whole or easy.

CS I'd like to ask about the poem "Franciscan Complex." It uses geology as a metaphor as you've described, but it also uses some very specific geological terminology. How does that terminology work for you in this poem?

BH I found out that the name of our granitic rock under a lot of the East Bay is called "Franciscan Complex." I loved the pun on "complex" especially that those who are in solidarity with Saint Francis might have a "complex" about it. That granite is complex, being a blend of things. The poem like many others in Cascadia has a "layered" style. I was setting observations about daily life (thinking about the artist Tanguy, thinking about going to Whole Foods to buy cake, thinking about getting ready to go to work) as strata in the mind, just like rock occurs in layers under the earth. I hope it captures some of the flavor of East Bay life, as well as my love for my job as a teacher.

CS How do you come to know places?

BH You early on get deeply connected with places. My early places were the Tucson desert, the Sonoran Desert. I am very drawn to places where it's rough to be alive. I'm deeply in love with places in California. Moraga is one of them Moraga as a landscape. The lion paw-looking hills are just amazing. The walk that I take in back when the rain starts here I always go in back of the stadium to try to find the newts when they're first getting in the red leaves. The poet has a moral commitment to somehow represent or render a place through metaphor or language; to make language of place has a lot to do with saving an environment. It's a different way of conceptualizing nature than "get out your violins, I'm feeling sentimental about nature." I feel morally responsible and committed to the wildlife here, the kinds of nature that are not obvious, even much-maligned introduced plants like the eucalyptus tree or the white deer in the Point Reyes area that the purists want to exterminate. I happen to love them. So it is intuitive, it's experiential, and it's about our place in nature and how to preserve it.

CS How would you advise someone new to a place to understand it or create a relationship with it?

BH Know your watershed. Don't just know the city limits of your town or your county, but know what river feeds you. Until I started working on the water book, I didn't know where my water came from, just like I didn't know from my political activism who my representatives were until I started having to call them. Now I know where the water we drink comes, which reservoir Pardee and I've seen how the water looks trickling down. Also, learning the names of the things that are around you what kind of squirrels do we have? What is that tree? Can you name your plants? I think being less sentimental about it actually involves more knowledge. So I'd say having more knowledge and getting out there, getting out so you know what a juniper berry looks like.

CS Tell me something about your new book, Practical Water.

BH Practical Water is the third one of this series and it comes out in the summer or early fall this year. It deals very much with international water, California water and watersheds, and also political activism and the interaction between human beings and their environment. It mixes many kinds of forms.

CS A poem from Practical Water, "Pacific Storms," runs with this interview. Could you talk about the source of this poem?

BH The shape arrived from the previous book four words per line, 24 lines a form that gave a curious satisfaction to various forms of unruly mental experience, especially those of waiting in time. I love the way our Pacific storms arrive with language on the radio. I was driving by myself up Highway 101 in the rain to visit a friend and a voice on the radio said, "The storm gates have opened." The language was accompanied by a large sense of forgiveness, whatever that is, a sense of being shriven in relationship to one's environment. Language is very odd; the poem references the word "saudades" from my mother's first language, Portuguese; it is a word full of longing and soul.

CS Do you have a timeline for your fourth element?

BH No timeline. I'm giving myself a two-month break before I start. Writing is very challenging. It's rewarding, but very difficult. I'm just going to drift aside for a second, and then I know that the muse will start nattering at me again.

Franciscan Complex

Each day the job gets up
And rubs its eyes
We are going to live on in dry amazement
Workers push the granite bed under the avenue
Bed of the married
The re- the pre-married
Making a form as forms become infinite
The scrapings scraping
Graywhacke chert
People wait for their bumpy little pizzas
Theories of theories in gravity voices
Melpomene goddess of tragedy bathes
Mostly the bride never the bridesmaid
Angel food in whole foods
Consider Tanguy whose lunar responses to childhood
Made everything a horizon
Those walking upside down don't know what to think
The finch engineering itself to deep spring
Or you life tired of being cured
How many layers
Of giving up are there
One of it
Two of everything in the arc you save
From Cascadia, Wesleyan University Press 2001

Pacific Storms

Baffled dread one day,
hope the next; hope
shifts; dread returns, then
that also lifts. Sometimes
in California, hearing sentences
like, "The storm gates
have opened," or "Storms
have lined up out
into the Pacific," you
experience a cheerful scraping
between depression & what's
here; in Portuguese, saudades
there's no English equivalent.
Crows over coast live
oaks, laurel saplings covered
with lichen veils in
oat-grass fields. The moon
is in Gort, Celts
might say. Ivy dies,
clinging. You drive along
thinking of a friend
who has forgiven you;
vineyards very gold, that
gold of school pencils.
From Practical Water, Wesleyan University Press 2009

Hillman is the author of seven books of poetry: White Dress (1985), Fortress (1989), Death Tractates (1992), Bright Existence (1993), Loose Sugar (1997), Cascadia (2001) and Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), which won the distinguished William Carlos Williams Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her eighth book, Practical Water, will be published in the summer of 2009. Hillman has edited an edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry and, with Patricia Dienstfrey, co-edited The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (2003). A recipient of numerous awards, Hillman has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. She is also a member of the permanent faculties of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.