I’m snug between commuters on the subway to work, reading Sean Hill’s Dangerous Goods, and I think, “What dangerous goods are we carrying in duffle bags and briefcases and purses and minds on our way from home into the world, on our way into another slice or phase of our travels?”
As an educator primarily of writing—essays, sometimes poems and stories—but I hope more than that, I appreciate close looks, examination, patient thought, all of which come steadily through the poems in Hill’s book. I know this inquisitiveness and headiness often takes over the poems I make, and infiltrates the other writings I explore. The poet Doug Kearney once said it is my curse and my advantage. Not everyone has the patience or desire to think patiently. Sometimes thought gets dull—it’s true. There’s a satisfaction in the thought of Hill’s poems, but also a balance with the real and practical, the feelings that lead anyone to puzzle out their relationships and interactions with colleagues, strangers. Hill shows us the emotions that come from thinking.
“Very recently, my students and I were trying to make sense of the act of poetry. What’s the point? Why read it? Why make it? A common exercise when surveying literature. We looked to the latest iPad Air commercial, featuring Robin Williams’s recitation and explanation of Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” from the film Dead Poets Society. Why make and read poems? Because we all know passion and love, and have an identity. When we make sense of poems we have to be selfish, in a way. We have to want to know, “What’s in this poem for me, for people who happen to read this piece?”—a fundamental desire.
There’s so much for you, for us, in Hill’s Dangerous Goods.
Over the distances a nomad, of sorts, has traveled and continues to travel, we are allowed to read intimate postcards to Eduardo and Anna, to the anonymous and inanimate, and to Regret, to Listlessness. We hear about history “From the Best Authorities”—tongue in cheek—how this history is the nomad’s and our own. We see how personal histories, destinations of the past, echo in the destinations of now, how journeying is aimless and intentional. We learn how we might nomad forward, understanding our own histories, personal and collective. We trek from Dickinson, ND, to the Bahamas, to London and Cairo, through Albuquerque, Bemidji, MN, Canada, Liberia, Milledgeville, GA, and Houston, TX. We trace the travels we may not know to find out what those travels do to us.
Distance is not simply the measurement from one point to another, it suggests what happens on the way from one point to the other. In the reversed villanelle, “Distance Between Desires,” Hill reminds us that we’re full of desire, we brim with it, proposing, “As one desire leaves another / hums the distance between desires.” We’re shown how the openness of a horizon, if foreign, can mess with what we know, can alter what we’re comfortable knowing:
My mother, father, brother,
grandmothers, and aunts—
I can’t feel it anymore.
Distance grows in the bones.
And Hill explores the terrains of history and poetic form—how the delivery of a piece carries us a distance. With the series “Schieffelin Bros. Exports & Imports,” Hill educates his readers about Eugene Schieffelin’s introduction of starlings to North American, his import of them, as well as his involvement with the American Colonization Society, “[exporting] American-born // negroes to Liberia,” viewing “the Americo-Africans, / good Christians, as a civilizing force / to make the ‘blighted dark continent’ brighter.” Hill builds a dialogue with history, these poems exploring the past, and their footnotes commenting from outside the poem. However, as built-in footnotes, these insights are both inside and beyond the poems. Hill’s communication with us is direct and artful.
We learn about Sandy Gannoway, “freed / after being owned before being born,” who travels to Liberia, “to go be free in what they call our fatherland,” and who later, “wants to get back to where / he’d been freed after being owned / before being born—home—Georgia” (“A Freedman Speaks of His Fellow, or From Milledgeville to New Philadelphia, 1872” and “Gannoway Returns, 1874”). And along these distances, the nomad speaker, deliberate and searching, returns home through memories of the nearby jail yard, first learning of the AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century, of family and how people treat one another “back home.”
Through the distances of import and export, road trips and cruises, experience and memory, Hill helps us figure our own distances—what has happened for us as individuals, as Americans, and citizens of the world. It is important to travel and to reflect on that travel. Recalling and coming after the poet James Wright, Hill lays down these thoughts:
Inevitably some portion of life is taken up
with observation—the difference between
living and looking, the moment and the moment
of reflection—attentive bewilderment at the way
an osprey can shake the weight of water from its
feathers in midair—mid-flap, even[…]
a thousand miles from home I phone every
couple of days to get a measure of how things
are going where I come from. The weight
of the lake the osprey sheds drops and ripples
around me. I don’t know whether to watch
the wingbeats or to reach my hand to touch
the ripples that come to me. I don’t know
whether I have wasted my life.
“after James Wright”
We’re allowed to not know. We probably don’t know, really, whether we’ve wasted our lives or not. How best to measure? Is it all about ourselves? Families? The good of humanity? No matter our guess, we’re mid-travel, mid-distance, riding the subway to work and home, moving from place to place, accumulating all the dangerous and necessary goods in our suitcases.