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Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways

  —i pull the hate
on a rope ladder to the resting zone…
    pull the A on down.
           Put that sick A to bed. Get well, A. Pinched
           fire. Bring the T down now 
    Roman cross before the Christian thing.
Bump bump. Put that T to bed. Put
         that Garamond T
to bed before we kill someone with it. Such as:
    Whack-whack. Weapon contractors in Virginia.
Whack. Get well T. Won’t kill with you.
            Now. Being
         able to breathe for the E,
breathe into the prongs. Slide on its back.
 E      E      E

   Put the E to bed. Get well, E.
Weird shapes around campfires
         below the mind.
Tiny fires with hurt earth spirits
         as in Aeschylus. Resting letters now
           so they can live—

—Brenda Hillman

Dana Levin reads and discusses Brenda Hillman’s “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways”

Transcription of Commentary

Brenda Hillman is one of America’s crucial contemporary poets, a braider of diverse strands of the American literary tradition. Firstly, there is her fiery spiritual engagement, a trait we find initially in the passionate sermons of early American religious writers and then in the work of her fellow eccentric seeker Emily Dickinson. “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways” also aligns with American Modernist E. E. Cummings, who winks behind “Autumn Ritual”’s exuberant typographical play. Indeed, such play is natural to a book called Seasonal Work with Letters on Fire, from which “Autumn Ritual” comes. In this poem, Hillman draws on the linguistic mysticism of Kabbalah, from the mystic branch of Judaism, where letters and words have agency in and of themselves because they are made of God’s holy fire. In “Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways,” the letter-play is the thing, with Hillman dismantling the word “hate” and putting each letter, one by one, to bed. She sends each off with a heartfelt “Get well” and nudges them to get some rest “so they can live” beyond the hate they once composed.

It is old spell-magic, to dismantle a word in order to dismantle the thing it conjures into being. Spell-magic requires a mind geared toward the hidden and fantastical, and in this regard “Autumn Ritual” recalls the seventeenth-century British Metaphysical poets John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and especially George Herbert, some of whose poems take the shape of altars and angel wings. Personification, as we can also see in “Autumn Ritual,” is a significant tool in Hillman’s hands—whether engaging letters of the alphabet as beings worthy of empathy and rest, or asserting (as she does elsewhere in Seasonal Works) that vowels, panicles, and California grasses “are made of fire,” is to argue for the inspiring spark in everything: Gaia sentience. Hillman, in addition to being one of America’s great spiritual poets, is one of our great writers about the Environment, particularly chronicling our passage through the Anthropocene era. In her hands, personification does important animating (even animistic) work for a book about a world going up in smoke.

Brenda Hillman, as a poet-citizen of America’s “New World,” reminds us that one of the functions of art is to disturb: to startle us out of the ossified, inflexible forms of the routine and conventional. In this, she has a particularly American genius. She Barnums up the language, coaxing from it boggling feats. She tells tall tales about the alphabet and electrons and stars. She stanches our dark democracy-wound of Senate hearings and oil spills and drone strikes with eelgrass and original flame. Her generosity of spirit and capacious embrace of the things of this world make me think of American poet-fathers Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg: her work is large, and contains multitudes.

“Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways” from Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire © 2013 by Brenda Hillman.

Published by Wesleyan University Press.

Used by permission.

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Dana Levin (1965- ) grew up in Lancaster, California, and attended Pitzer College and New York University. She is the author of Banana Palace (2016); Sky Burial (2011); Wedding Day (2005), which received a Whiting Award; and In the Surgical Theatre (1999), which received the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and APR/Honickman First Book Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. She is currently a distinguished writer in residence at Maryville University in Missouri. Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim.

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman (1951- ) was born in Tucson, Arizona and attended Ponoma College and the University of Iowa. She is the author of several books of poetry, including Practical Water, Loose Sugar (a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle) and Bright Existence (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). She has additionally been honored with a Pushcart Prize and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2016 and is currently a professor and Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry at Saint Mary’s College of California. Photo credit: Brett Hall Jones.