The Natural Infuses the Municipal: Practical Water by Brenda Hillman

Practical Water

Practical Water
BY Brenda Hillman
(Wesleyan University Press, 2009)

Perhaps I am alone in my unease with acknowledging technology in poems: quoting important news I receive via email, I cite a “message,” as if embossed envelopes greeted us, Legends of Zelda-style, revolving in air. There is something about today’s technology that is noisy, distracting; for me, it interrupts the poem. If my fear is of losing a poem to specifics that are too topical to the immediate present, a poet who can allow the messy details of our contemporary world to visit, but not overwhelm — or even date — a poem earns my immediate respect. Brenda Hillman does just that in linking our littered, branded, ringing, pinging present with the universal. The very “Diet Pepsi plastic on its side” near a creek bed sings of the ruin we do — to a place, to a moment — simply by trying to experience it. Ironically, the female speaker and her companions in “Enchanted Twig” have come to this creek in search of fresh water:

The diverted creek sounds sad so maybe i better
take our dowsing stick out to the field, for our Y will
pull &
find buried water. With twig lines on our face & humming. With up &
down for the word needs
a water-finding stick for bringing wrecked water
beneath blue mist — For water wants to be equal. Water wants
to be equal & the world
needs women with sticks & dusk husks, since they have
taken the husks of damselflies when they straightened
the creek, when the golf course needed its tight white

— p. 7

Hillman, an environmental advocate and an activist with the anti-war group Code Pink, extends this problem of ego inflicted upon landscape from the individual to the social. The tension mounts in “In a Senate Armed Services Hearing,” one of several poems in which the natural infuses the municipal — indeed, was always at its heart. A senator, that grey flannel-cased speaker and signer, is exposed for a mammal by the speaker, who notices the “prickly intimate hairs between his ears.” His colleagues, more mammals with “kids with stuff to do, folks with cancer,” are pair- and group-bonded fauna and wishing themselves back to their dens. They are in the unique, and seemingly arbitrary position of being animals capable of deciding the fate of other animals. Dens will be exploded, the young ripped out, for the sake of the painted stripe walling off “American interests.”

Even in this plaster-sealed compound, the senators are not isolated from the rest of nature: a lone fly buzzes in the neutral space of the room, where flowers on the carpet register electromagnetically. The air, the still water in the classes, the animal breath are a continuous medium. In this unity of vitreous and nerve signals, divine and material, too, are of a piece: the thought of a goddess weeping over broken folk is nearly enough to induce her to “rain her tears” upon

Senator Bayh & Senator Clinton, on Senator Warner
in his papa tie & Senator Levin, on Senator Reed &
Senator Hill — rain tears into their water glasses, Ishtar
from Babylon they had not met
before they smashed her country now or never.

— p. 35

How right it seems, somehow, that the gods are responding to senators; ancient Greece — birthplace both of democracy and the storied panoply at Mount Olympus — must have witnessed a similar engagement.

…Hillman situates her work in temporal and geographical specifics, with all of their attendant debris. She neither shies from, nor encrypts in ageless generalities, the depredations and delectations of the contemporary era.

Whether it be the Eighties, Berkeley, Congress, an aqueduct, or even a phone booth, Hillman situates her work in temporal and geographical specifics, with all of their attendant debris. She neither shies from, nor encrypts in ageless generalities, the depredations and delectations of the contemporary era. The result is not a topicality relevant only for its day, or week, until it is replaced by the next dispatch. Protecting Hillman’s work from obsolescence is not simply the pithy old trope of the universe through the particular, but rather the fact that the universe is particular, in the most literal sense of the word.

A central focus of Hillman’s activism is protesting war. The rhetoric of war justifies itself by championing measured destruction so as to build, and rebuild. Matter is neither created nor destroyed; everything that was is still with us. Fitting, then, that Hillman finds such equivalency in the seemingly disparate: the breast of a dead sparrow and “an ounce of tea”; dollars like discarded gauze that “have done violence” and now “lain down to absorb the blood.” Nothing — object or action — is disconnected from its destination, its outcome: a woman on a flight crosses the International Dateline,

touched by sunrise on one side only
before a moon touches you on the other

Of course, one may reason, a child knows about the rotation of the earth. But our perception of flying makes it hard for us to unite origin and arrival in a continuum, to remember that our loved ones are still part of the same world as we. Hillman’s speaker intones, like a mantra:

They keep you with youyou keep them with them

You keep them with you
They keep you with them

— p. 13

Hillman also reminds us that we are continuous with geography, weather, and other species. Her images of the inorganic — chairs, an insignia, a mask — co-sign the reality as much as images of the “natural” — flowers, water birds, a mushroom. Without aggression, she dismantles our ideas of ourselves as being apart from nature. Her message is not that we must not cut ourselves off from our habitat and fellow animals, and our shared past, but that we cannot: we are, literally, of a piece.

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