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About this poet

Brenda Hillman was born in Tucson, Arizona, on March 17, 1951. She was educated at Pomona College and received her MFA at the University of Iowa. Her upbringing in a deeply religious Baptist family surfaces in many of her poems, especially those that appear in Loose Sugar and the California mission poems of Cascadia.

She is the author of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 2013); Practical Water (Wesleyan University Press, 2011); Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005); Cascadia (2001); Loose Sugar (1997), which was a finalist for National Book Critic's Circle; Bright Existence (1993), a finalist for Pulitzer Prize; Death Tractates (1992); Fortress (1989); and White Dress (1985). Her poems have also been collected in three chapbooks: The Firecage (2000); Autumn Sojourn (1995); and Coffee, 3 A.M. (1982).

Her work has been called eclectic, mercurial, sensuous, and luminescent. In an interview in Rain Taxi, Hillman said "It is impossible to put boundaries on your words, even if you make a poem. Each word is a maze. So you are full of desire to make a memorable thing and have the form be very dictated by some way that it has to be. But the poem itself is going to undo that intention. It's almost like you're knitting a sweater and something is unraveling it on the other end."

Hillman is also the coeditor, along with Patricia Dienstfrey, of The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), and the editor of a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems published by Shambhala Press in 1995.

Hillman received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2012. Her other honors include awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America, along with a Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award.

Hillman has taught at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and the University of California, Berkeley. She holds the Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, and lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the poet Robert Hass.

String Theory Sutra

Brenda Hillman, 1951
There are so many types of 
“personal” in poetry. The “I” isa needle some find useful, though
the thread, of course, is shadow. 
In writing of experience or beauty,a cloth emerges as if made
from a twin existence. It's July 
4: air is full of mistakenstars & the wiggly half-zeroes stripes
make when folded into fabric meant 
never to touch ground ever again—the curved cloth of Sleeping Beauty
around 1310, decades after the spinning 
wheel gathered stray fibers in awhir of spindles before the swath
of the industrial revolution, & by 
1769 a thread stiff enough forthe warp of cotton fabric from
the spinning frame, the spinning jenny, 
the spinning "mule" or muslin wheel,which wasn't patented. By its, I
mean our, for we would become 
what we made. String theory positsno events when it isn't a
metaphor; donuts twists in matter—10 
to the minus 33 cm—itsinverted fragments like Bay Area poetry— 
numbers start the world for grown-ups 
& wobbly fibers, coaxed from eternity,are stuffed into stems of dates
like today so the way people 
are proud of their flag canenter the pipes of a 4.
Blithe astonishment in the holiday music 
over the picnickers: a man wavesfrom his spandex biking outfit, cloth
that both has & hasn't lost 
its nature. Unexpected folds are partof form where our park is
kissed by cucalyptus insect noises ^^z- 
z~ ~> crr, making that for youFlag cloth has this singing quality.
Airline pilots wear wool blend flag 
ties from Target to protect theirhearts. Women, making weavings of
unicorns in castles, hummed as they sewed 
spiral horns with thread so realit floated; such artists were visited
by figures in beyond-type garments so 
they could ask how to live.It’s all a kind of seam.
Flying shuttles, 1733, made weaving like 
experience, full of terrible accidents &progress. Flags for the present war
were made in countries we bombed 
in the last war. By we you mean they. By you it
means the poem. By it I 
mean meanings which hang tatters ofdawn’s early light in wrinkled sections of
the druid oak with skinny linguistic 
branches, Indo-European roots & theweird particle earth spirits. A voice
came to me in a dream 
beyond time: love, we are yourshadow thread ~ ~ A little owl
with stereo eyes spoke over my 
head. I am a seamstress forthe missing queen. The unicorn can’t
hear. It puts its head on 
our laps. Fibers, beauty at alow level, fabric styles, the cottage
industry of thought. Threads inspired this 
textile picnic: the satin ponytail holder,the gauze pads inside Band-Aids,
saris, threads of the basketball jersey, 
turbans, leis over pink shorts, sportsbras: A young doctor told us
—he’s like Chekhov, an atheist believer 
in what’s here —that sometimes, sittingwith his dying patients, he says,
“God bless you.” It seems to 
help somewhat. They don’t know whatcauses delays between strings—by they,
I mean the internet. Turns out 
all forces are similar to gravity.We searched for meaning ceaselessly. By
we I mean we. Sewed it 
us-wards, with flaws between strings.It seems there is no revolution
in the Planck scale. My sisters 
& I worked for the missingqueen: she said: be what you
aren’t. A paradox. There are some 
revolutions: rips in matter, the bentnots inside our fabric whirred &
barely mattered anymore. Our art 
could help take vividness to peoplebut only if they had food.
No revolution helped the workers, ever, 
very long. We worked on thisor that flag after sewing this
or that unicorn. They called Trotsky 
back from Canada. Tribes were looser thannations, nations did some good
but not so very always, & 
the types of personal in artturned & turned. Nylon parachutes in
1937. Lachesis. We shall not flag 
nor fail, wrote Churchill. O knight,tie our scarf on your neck.
There are more than two ways 
to make beauty so movements endlike sutras or horizons, somewhat frayed.
Je est un autre wrote Rimbaud 
the gun-runner. Over & inner &code. The unicorn, c’est moi. The
rips by which the threads are 
tethered to their opposites like conceptsof an art which each example
will undo. We spoke of meanings. 
I, it, we, you, he, theyam, is, are sick about America.
Colors forgive flags—red as the 
fireskirt of the goddess Asherah, white 
as the gravity behind her eye, 
blue for the horizon unbuttoned sothe next world can get through.
The “thin thread of calculable continuity” 
Santayana refers to —it’s not achoice between art & life, we
know this now, but still: How 
shall we live? O shadow thread.After the cotton workers’ lockout 1922
owners cut back sweatshop hours to 
44 per week. In string theorythe slippage between string & theory
makes air seem an invented thing 
& perhaps it is, skepticism mixedwith fear that since nothing has
singular purpose, we should not act. 
To make reality more bearable forsome besides ourselves? There’s a moment
in Southey’s journal when the tomb 
is opened & the glow-beast exits—right when the flying shuttle has
revolutionized their work—by their I 
mean our —& cut costs byhalf. So lines are cut to
continue them & if you do 
help the others, don’t tell. String theoryposits symmetry or weight. My country
’tis of installing provisional governments. 
Why was love the meaning thread.Textiles give off tiny singing no
matter what: washable rayon, airport 
carpets, checked flannel smocks of nurses,caps, pillowcases, prom sashes, & barbecue
aprons with insignias or socks people 
wear before/during sexual thrills afterdark subtitled Berkeley movies next to
t-shirts worn by crowds in raincoats. 
Human fabric is dragged out, beingis sewn with terror or awe
which is also joy. Einstein called mystery 
of existence “the fundamental emotion.”Remember? You unraveled in childhood till
you were everything. By everything I mean 
everything . The unicorn puts its headon your lap; from there it
sees the blurry edge. How am 
I so unreal & yet mythread is real it asks sleepily~~

From Pieces of Air in the Epic by Brenda Hillman. Copyright © 2005 by Brenda Hillman. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

From Pieces of Air in the Epic by Brenda Hillman. Copyright © 2005 by Brenda Hillman. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2012.

by this poet

poem
On the under-mothered world in crisis,
the omens agree. A Come herefollows for reader & hero through
the named winds as spirits are
poem
Infinity lifted: 
a gasp of emeralds.
 
I thought I felt 
the tall night trees 
between them,
 
no exactitude, 
a wait not even 
known yet.
 
I held my violet up; 
no smell. 
It made a signal squeak 
inside, bats,
 
lisps of pride;
 
ah, their little things, 
their breath: lungs of a painting,
 
they swept me
poem
When we part, even for an hour,
you become the standing on the avenue 
baffled one, under neon, 
      holding that huge 
red book about the capital— ;
    
      what will you be in the next hour,
   — bundled to walk 
through creamy coins from streetlamps
on sidewalks to your car, past
     candles reflected