Why I Chose Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


I know I’m not supposed to dog-ear the pages of poetry books. It’s bad for the long-term health of the book. I know this. And yet, I’ve dog-eared more pages of Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire than I have not.

Some pages, several pages, are double dog-eared, suggesting that I want to return to poems on both sides of the page. I did this with page 5 and 6, for instance. I want to return to the first stanza of the poem “The Fuel of an Infinite Life” and I also need to return to “Grammar of This Life at Noon.” Here’s a sample from the first poem I’ve mentioned:

You argue with someone at work. The chemical change
in your shadow meets the dry grass at the edge
of his shadow like an adolescent planning on
burning a field, or the love you wanted
to have later with another, the memory of what
your energy made before he began to speak….

(“The Fuel of an Infinite Life”)

And this from “Grammar of This Life at Noon”:

The immortals wait in the fields.
And the newt under the laurel (a dragon
whose three heads argued
with themselves–),
the push thistles, Celastrina echo butterfly
with automatic semi-colons
on its wings–(’twill hide
under the clorox-
cloud–& that’s that! some punctuation
is just too sensitive to
be outside–)…

Heaven’s to Betsy! So much I could say about these lines. The ideas Hillman works around, that an argument changes the chemistry of the space around two people or that, in the inhuman lives we might notice if we took time to notice, we see reflections of our own grammar. All around us, Hillman seems to say, we apprehend the basic underpinnings of all our stories. She turns simple concepts into things far more revealing. The intimacy she conveys, the disappointment, the panic even, these are elements of magic I want to revisit, and so I have double dog-eared page 5 and page 6.

Hillman does this over and over in Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire. She shows me something I thought I already knew but from an angle I hadn’t previously considered. Each time I’m delighted by the world I see anew in a poem, I dog-ear another page. Thus, the book is full of the traces of my enthrallment. Consider the poems “A Quiet Afternoon at the Office” and “A Quiet Afternoon at the Office II.” I don’t want to spoil, for you, the initial thrill these poems gave me by telling you how they achieved this thrill, but I will tell you that Hillman has implemented an ingenious and also gutsy way to show me something I already knew from an angle I hadn’t previously considered. In form and content, Hillman’s poems consistently implement gutsy and ingenious ways to bring me the news anew.

Her poems feel at once plainly conversational and highly stylized. I come into the words as if into a comfort zone, but I am reminded again and again that I oughtn’t grow comfortable with my comfort. Think of the fate of that Celastrina echo butterfly. It is doomed from the start, but it takes me awhile to see that. Hillman knows where to break a thought to build upon all of its potential. What is the adolescent “planning on” doing in the lines from “The Fuel of an Infinite Life” I quoted above? Later in the same stanza, I wonder what it is “you wanted” with your love? “The memory of what”? I want to ask before the line turns and I discover part of the answer. This careful lineation allows Hillman to say one thing and also another. Until she turns to the next line, Hillman reminds me of a universe of possibilities. The poems are alive in this way, as fire can be alive. They are changeable as the seasons. They are as full of potential as any letter just before it is put to a particular use. Thus moved beyond my understanding, I want to return to poem after poem, again and again, and so, I dog-ear their pages. I continue, thus mauling beloved pages, throughout Hillman’s Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire.

I am in love with this book, and the pages show it.

How about “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie” in which Hillman gives one of the best explanations of ecopoetics I’ve ever read:

“A–At times a poem might enact qualities brought from Romantic poetry, through Baudelaire, to modernism & beyond–freedom of form, expressivity, & content–taking these to a radical intensity, with uncertainty, complexity, contradiction.”

I regularly teach a “Poems from Nature” course, and I am going to teach this piece at the beginning of every new semester. Hillman has found language for a concept many are struggling to articulate clearly. And so, I dog-eared, also, this page.

Brenda HillmanIt is Hillman’s “radical intensity” I am drawn to in this book. The “uncertainty, complexity, contradiction” I experience in the poems keeps me attentive. In the poem “In the Room of Glass Breasts,” Hillman writes, “It is impossible to describe the world;/that’s why you get sleepy listening to poetry.” I agree and thank her for reminding me what it is that knocks me out sometimes, but I also know I grow more alert when in the presence of some poetry. I know that the truths Hillman expresses enter as the truths of dreams can enter, if I let them, catching me off guard and realigning what I thought I knew and how I thought I’d come to know it. “People come here for their bit of joy,” Hillman reminds us in the poem “In Summer, Everything is Something’s Twin.” Throughout the book, she also reminds us that the world is full of suffering and change that she (and we) cannot (should not) ignore.

The fact that I love this book but treat it quite questionably, is not out of line with the nature of the meditations I find in its pages. We are destroying the world so many of us claim to love. We are doing it again and again. We can stop ourselves if we put our minds to it. We can turn another page. We can, this time, learn to be attentive in a different way.


Want to join The Rumpus Poetry Book Club and chat with Brenda Hillman about her book? Click here.

Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W. W. Norton, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017). She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, 2009), co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology (Persea, 2009), and served as assistant editor on Gathering Ground: Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006). She is the poetry editor for Orion magazine. Dungy's work has appeared in Best American Poetry, 100 Best African American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Travel Essays, the Pushcart Anthology and more than 30 other anthologies, plus dozens of print and online venues including Poetry, American Poetry Review, VQR, Literary Hub, Paris Review, and Poets.org. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, a Colorado Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award Nominations, and fellowships from the NEA in both poetry and prose. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter (and down the street from her parents, who followed her this time around). Dungy is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. More from this author →