Brenda Hillman’s taxonomic and fiercely independent Extra Hidden Life, among the Days is perhaps her most radical poetry collection yet. As with her previous books, Hillman aligns personal convictions about the environment, war, and human exploitation with an aesthetic of lyric experimentation. From the first poems in the book, which subtly acknowledge the sanctity of forests and all things living, Hillman does more than take formal and rhetorical risks. She is far too grounded in her beliefs to bear false witness or to humor fence-sitters: “the brendas were angry at the greed, angry / that the trees would die, had lost interest / in the posturing of the privileged, / / the gaps between can’t & won’t. . .” For three decades now, her poems have displayed a richness and a terrific wit that comes from her mastery of various registers and a freedom to deploy scientific and botanical language alongside the demotic and historical; such erudition and instinct nearly always pay off: “A hawk skims the exterior / of the interior hill—piercing non-syllables / you cannot dream—; its sound is extreme, / red rick-rack on a hill.” Add to this her tendency to treat the page like a canvas, with inventive typography, photography, and the use of letters and symbols as visual elements, and one can see why this collection makes a bolder claim on our sense of poetry. Also, where other experimental poets work to escape personality, Hillman is unable to keep the autobiographical at bay, which renders her poems arable and teeming with possibility. This is what endows her with the sovereignty to give voice to the animal kingdom or pun unselfconsciously: “we were using / iPhones so cAppletalism is still winning”; “Form rhymes with farm”; “If you Google burying a firearm it changes to a search for buying a firearm.” In addition to elegies for her father and the poet C. D. Wright, with poems such as “A Short Rhyme for Amiri Baraka” and “Crypto-animist Introvert Activism,” Extra Hidden Life, among the Days is full of celebrations of those who keep fighting the good fight or, like Rosa Luxemburg and Rosa Parks, devoted their lives to resisting. This is a collection that invites all of us to “Angrily [Stand] Outside in the Wind.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2018.