In a Garden of Zeroes: On Brenda Hillman’s “In a Few Minutes Before Later”

IN A FEW MINUTES BEFORE LATER is a big, ambitious, ferociously groundbreaking book that cycles through sections devoted to stress and beauty, activism and poetry, admirable women, troubled writers, science and the world soul, and environmental catastrophe alongside “endangered words.” This collection persistently bolts “beyond control” of conveniently channeled trajectories of thought and genre. Hillman reimagines forms for “a justice outside our usual music”—which means, in her case, a determined expansive poetry that includes prose, photographs, diagrams, pedigree charts, and all sorts of typographical expressionism. Many poems take up and extend the concerns of previous poems, but never toward the formulation of some grand conclusion that might be easy to summarize. In fact, the scalar dimensions of Hillman’s poems tend toward the numerous and the particular, “that little meaning,” which, in her hands, is “absolutely elusive, & erotic.”

There is so much to say about this book that, just to begin to get some traction, I’ll anchor this essay to something solid. The first poem will do nicely:

Micro-minutes on Your Way to Work

Days are unusual. The owl sends
out 5 zeroes from the pines
plus one small silver nothing. Where
do they float? Maybe out to
sea, where jellyfish are aging left
& right. They have some nerve.
Today, no new wars, probably. No
big button. The owl could be
your scholar of trapped light or
Walter Benjamin who writes a storm
blows in from paradise. Thinking through
these things each week, you cross

the bridge: gold coils, fog, feelings…
sillables also can grow younger like
those jellyfish. You bring your quilt
of questions in the car. At
work, you’ll have to be patient
in the risky enterprise of talking
to other people; so little progress
in this since the Pleistocene. Mostly,
though, you’re calm when traveling: silver
nothing, moving right & left; day
releasing the caged stars; one thought
mixed with no-thought, packed with light …

The opening poem introduces a method in its quick drift of associations. A reference to “days” is followed by one to an “owl,” which we associate not with day but with night. In a kind of conceptual metonymy, Hillman describes the sound the owl makes as “5 zeroes.” This unusual federation of numerology and enunciation merges the nonhuman realm with the human realm, since zeroes have the shape of the human mouth when it utters an owl’s “who” sound. The verb “float” in the following line serves as a kind of copula, linking the owl’s floaty call to the movement of jellyfish, which also happens to be round as a zero or a “big button.” But “big button,” since it follows the declaration of “no new wars,” more likely suggests the figurative term for the power to use nuclear weapons. Very quickly the reader sees how the associative ligaments of the poem begin to create a complex web of far-reaching interrelatedness.

In the second stanza, anticipating many future references in the book to language as a living system, we are told that “syllables also can grow younger like / those jellyfish.” Recirculating and chiasmatic images — “left / & right” and “right & left”; “trapped light” and “packed” light; “thinking through” and “one thought / mixed with no-thought”; two references to “silver nothing”— coordinate the poem’s two stanzas.

Hillman’s insistent relation of the human and nonhuman, of animate and inanimate agencies, of language (including punctuation) and thingness, of nonlinear time and the mystery of presence, and of the particular and the conceptual electrify the wild and moving poems of her newest book . In poem after poem, paradox, contradiction, and intuitive insight become her favored forms of protest against the binary logic of logos (where our “reason had hung its unreasonable lights”). So sometimes Hillman refuses analogy in order to let us “see the thing itself,” as William Carlos Williams put it. She writes, “Mosses on buildings looked like themselves” or “Planes sat idle / (please, let’s stop calling them birds).” On the other hand, she is frequently willing to risk personification in order to grant agency to the nonhuman. “Roses stared in at us / as if yearning,” she writes; “stones limped along,” a tree was “braying to push itself along,” or “[l]ight lies down […] waiting to be described.” Perhaps her most radical act of personification is a kind of literalizing of Wittgenstein’s premise that we see the world through the lens of language. In Hillman’s poems, we see the world stamped by our own typography, specifically by punctuation. When she writes that the “mosses bunched , , ,, , , , , ,,” she encourages us to see commas enacting the clustered mosses. When she asks “if the bird you hadn’t seen — white-breasted nuthatch, / could find its commas, in the tree,” what could she mean except that the bird’s place in the tree is a temporary location, a dependent clause in the ongoingness of the world? But at the same time, the bird’s actual claws — three forward-facing and one backward-facing — resemble commas.

That white-breasted nuthatch is a recurring talismanic figure in the poems. Even when it isn’t seen — as in the quote above — we are aware of it. In one poem, a “Nuthatch left stripes when it flew off.” Some trace of its presence remained. In the very next poem, “Stripes of / the nuthatch stayed when the nuthatch / flew off.” Such time-resistant residues of presence come clear in other poems as well, for instance as “the linked auras / in trees & a colorful radiance.” They begin to create for us a familiar company, a local world.

Time is one of the major themes of the book — as the title indicates. Throughout the poems, there are more than 20 occasions of the word “minute.” And what are the few minutes before later if not now, our present, which Hillman considers “the ground of being.” In fact, “Meaning,” she writes in “Poem Describing Time to the Unborn,” “is made / of time.” We encounter blackbirds flying “through minutes all at once” and slashes placed “on the instrument of time///.” Hillman’s commas are, of course, signs of our self-conscious pauses within time’s steady pulse. Still another typographical element that she comes to use frequently is a set of parallel lines — || — which she identifies as “small rails” that “seem to be space & time / when minutes seem to line up but then don’t.” In several poems, Hillman reminds us that our “time on earth is brief” or “there’s not much time.” And she quotes Henri Bergson’s observation that “real time has no instants.”

It makes sense that a poet whose recent books have focused on the elements — earth, fire, air, and water — would come to be concerned with time, through which all presences and elements we know interact. But in the senses that Hillman uses time — as the ground of being, the substance of meaning, a condition that we experience not as endless but “brief” — we might understand that time exists for us principally through our awareness of our own mortality. Still, Hillman’s poems suggest that our death continues a process of transformation. But she’s not going to say it like that. Hillman alternatives poetics for philosophical postulation. In “A Pattern of Minutes During Illness,” the speaker describes a dying friend:

[She] kept moving through the rounded minutes
of her days as bees in
her yard of double-faced roses sped
into a wheel of notches at
the center of time, or into
time at the center of each
rose.

Here, as elsewhere in this book, she may be thinking of Blake, but not his conception of Christian eternity. For Hillman, absence asserts its own presence — as in the afterimage of the nuthatch. In another poem, she’ll observe how “the quiet ones merge / into earth. They sort the fertile chaos / from flat statement.” She describes a “worm, crossing the battlefield, its mouth / filled with silt.” The dead, she implies, are composted into a vital, living earth. “The Times We Find Ourselves In” ends with the image of “A law of misty rootless process // A kind of light that comes from below,” emphasizing the permeable membrane between death and life. Yet another poem, “The American Burying Beetle,” links itself to the same theme. It ends with this sentence: “When I feel / desperate about humans, i think of this / worker under the six states remaking the dead.”

In her gestures to reveal poetry as a part of a more extensive living system, Hillman, by making visible an alphabet and the marks we use to clarify syntax, leads us to see how we encounter the world through the construct of language. Just as life forms and phenomena — including molecules — interact with their environment, she seems to be saying, so too do language and its signs affect our comprehension of those environments. So “The Highest Part of the Dust” begins, “Italic Z of snow. A perhaps raptor’s nest / beside it in the pine.” Later, she asserts that “[t]he pronoun is wearing a mask.” In a poem for the Cuban revolutionary writer José Martí, Hillman concocts a living system of relationship by mixing song, dream, the creaturely world, landscape, and human systems of representation. Addressing Martí, she says:

What

keeps you hiding
gives you energy:
alphabet of
zeroes, caveats, dreams
of the little dire fishes —

In a similar fashion, in a poem describing “irrational hope,” Hillman’s speaker claims, “I have buried my alphabet / in a garden of zeroes —”

In addition to allusions to alphabets and zeroes, and to the effusive display of commas and parallel lines or “small rails” that we considered earlier, Hillman adapts other typographical signals that — like Richard Feynman’s diagrams for representing the behavior of subatomic particles — express the ongoing interaction of energy fields: “Energy wings ^^>>< while we are talking,” the speaker observes.

There are a few poets who take on these kinds of risks, whose poems so enthusiastically track the mind’s unpredictable Lucretian swerves, who — like Heracles cleaning out horse shit from the Aegean Stables — channel so many rivers simultaneously through the stanzas of a poem. Hillman’s poetic voice is invariably composed of many voices. In fact, in a signal pronouncement, she asserts that “[t]he voice of the age is the voices.” And yet, despite the multiplicities that each poem enacts and celebrates, what nourishes us in each reading is most often a tender, emotionally charged lyricism. The language of the poems, at once mysterious and moving, rises into strikingly original passages. She writes,

Yet experience had gathered itself, dark-eyed;
& an odd love
came into focus like remaining

snow, mirroring something inexactly —

Or:

Appearances bringing
collapsed green, & the mosses live among
Acres of the self of earth, in a chain of thrilling glances as green
talks to the sky.

In many ways, this book is an extended love poem riven with outrage and curiosity, self-examination and acts of forgiveness. As we read it, it becomes a kind of “enchantment in the life,” in our life. In a poem that incorporates that very phrase in its title, Hillman lavishes some hard-wrought wisdom on herself, but for our benefit. The poem’s last lines — marked by slant rhyme — might, in their candid tonalities, serve as an appropriate conclusion to this essay:

Do you love a living person
absolutely? Tell them now.
In a half-unwieldy life you made, under
the hyaline sky, while the dead
drank from zigzag pools nearby.

¤

A US Artists Rockefeller fellow, Forrest Gander has been recipient of grants from the NEA, Guggenheim, Howard, Witter Bynner, and Whiting foundations. His 2011 collection Core Samples from the World was an NBCC and Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry, and his 2018 collection Be With won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was longlisted for the National Book Award. His upcoming collection from Copper Canyon is Knot (November 2022).

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