Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire

by Brenda Hillman


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Winner of the Griffin Poetry Trust's International Poetry Prize (2014)
Runner-up for the Northern California Book Reviewers Northern California Book Award (2014)

Fire— its physical, symbolic, political, and spiritual forms—is the fourth and final subject in Brenda Hillman's masterful series on the elements. Her previous volumes—Cascadia, Pieces of Air in the Epic, Practical Water—have addressed earth, air, and water. Here, Hillman evokes fire as metaphor and as event to chart subtle changes of seasons during financial breakdown, environmental crisis, and street movements for social justice; she gathers factual data, earthly rhythms, chants to the dead, journal entries, and lyric fragments in the service of a radical animism. In the polyphony of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, the poet fuses the visionary, the political, and the personal to summon music and fire at once, calling the reader to be alive to the senses and to re-imagine a common life. This is major work by one of our most important writers. Check for the online reader's companion at

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819575227
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 09/09/2014
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,138,021
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.38(d)

About the Author

BRENDA HILLMAN is an activist, writer, and teacher. She has published nine collections of poetry, all from Wesleyan University Press, including Practical Water, for which she won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry. Hillman serves on the faculty of Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California, as the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry.

Read an Excerpt

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire

By Brenda Hillman

Wesleyan University Press

Copyright © 2013 Brenda Hillman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7415-2



    Between earth
    & its noun, i felt a fire ...

    — What does it mean by "i," Mrs?
    — It means, (& i quote): one
    of the vowels in the brain
    & some of the you's —;

    we were interested in the type of thing
    humans can't know,
    interested in kinds of think animals think
    — a rabbit or a skink! (Eumeces skiltonianus)
    when autumn brings a grammar,
    wasps circle the dry stalks
    & you can totally
    see through amber ankles dangling
    in dazzle under our lord the sun
    of literature —

    Between noon & its noun,
    there were ridged
    & golden runes on pumpkins ... bluish
    gourds — in the fields ...
    (their white eyes lined up
    inside) — Wait a sec. Please
    don't nail the door shut. The air is friendly
    & non-existent as Veronica's veil — ...

    Earth, don't torment your fool,
    your ambassador clown. Bring
    the x of oxygen & sex, a fox
    running sideways, through present noon —

    Some Kinds of Reading in Childhood

    Do you remember Picture Day?
    Then, when the packets came back —
    in each child's eyes:
    incomprehensible fire — ;
    you were ordinary,
    in the sense of: the endangered west; —
    your mother wiped the windshield
    with a shredded Kleenex
    (that's why you deserved your oily treats) —

    Inside the school, reading made sparks:
    peril, peril, peril-&-awe;
    outside the school, acres of signs
    in cellophane noon, where
    under the school, termites take
    the tasty beams into their bodies —
    [Incisitermes minor] delicate hairless arms ...
    Save the volcanoes for later,
    flame-folder. You did such a good job
    with the maps!

    The world has created a sickness
    but the sickness is being
    reversed ... Consonants
    can be reasoned with, but vowels
    start fires — now! breathing
    twice: Now! Here come
    the bandit occupiers:
    silence & meaning —

    The Fuel of an Infinite Life

    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.

    It is impossible to discuss anything with your boss
    because he has consulted the priest & they
    will never see you again —; you stored that
    in the chamber of geometric symbols, saying
    to the wings above the granary, there is the fact
    of the barren stalks, the pharaoh's dream

    of hunger, saying to yourself (a prophetic mute),
    the hour will come someday for fire until
    there are years of storing energy in these postures,
    drawing circles with bones from the nine names
    & lights that make words into sticks for
    winnowing the shadows of falsity or ridicule.

    Even the world, wide as it is, cannot exhaust
    the fuel of your life when you are one of
    the interpreters about to escape from the dream
    with your archived & flexible heat, trying
    to keep from hating them at the marketplace,
    to remember what would transform judgment

    into action if only you could abandon the gifts as if
    they were nothing, after you & the pharaoh's
    huts are long gone; the dream will not be
    idle when it touches the tip of the match
    to the willing field after the harvest —

    FOR BBH & SM


    The immortals wait in the fields.

    & 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 — )
    Stubby white
    teeth on that baby vole:
    smile on its face — screeep! like
    gnostic Jesus, its comma-comma-comma
    claws. Clause — verbless mosquito-egg
    daylight ...
    Worker, dreamer:
    your soul has slept with
    countesses so long
    his hands still smell like money!
    He says to himself:
    my lord the sun has thrown
    his sexual shadow upon me ... (oops!

    Where did it go?)
    — It's just fallen behind something.
    (What has?)
    — Whatever you lost.


    Behind the galaxy, there was a flute:
    sound was making love to sound;
    time was making sound
    to sexual, textual, lexical space —
    we worked too hard, we lay
    near fields from which they gathered plastics —
    mimics & contortionists — under the ping-ping
    of meteors, under made-up constellations;

    the planet flew through space junk
    while the Health Care Bill was being penned
    with pens from Chantix, pens from Lidoderm
    & Protinix, with pens
    from Actos, Lamosil, & Celebrex;

    late autumn made a fire in us;
    the cosmos waited for a sign;
    the soul was waiting for the mind,
    fat chickadees waited for sweet fennel
    [Foeniculum vulgare] & nameless
    asters on side streets where drones
    take violins to the Queen —
    what kind of drones?
    The sounds fly out, for thee —
    we slept as many as the anyway
    where meaning met material, that is,
    inside the personal,
    that is, for love of earth —


    after Richard O. Moore

    Existence tells the lighthouse
    I am your pigeon, then crash!
    we didn't know
    it had a window!
    Autumn asks its summer:
    what if we are only sound
    tracking itself, flare
    of a fishing boat
    (the sea shines purple in);
    the body casts its shadow
    down the coast,
    noon onto the mezzanine —
    edge of a thought, a main
    but not the only thing. You struggle
    to endure your life,
    a screen of symbols made of fire;
    a nothing calls its something,
    its stray hope, no gain;
    anarchic music climbs
    the tower to turn
    the key inside to sing —


    Our lord of literature
    visits my love,
    they have gone below,
    they have lost their way
    among the tablets
    of the dead —;

    preeeee — dark energy — woodrat
    in the pine, furred thing
    & the fine,
    a suffering among syllables, stops
    winter drops from cold, cold,
    miracle night (a fox
    deep in its hole under yellow
    thumbs of the chanterelles,
    (no: gold. Gold thumbs, Goldman Sachs
    pays no tax ... (baby goats
    in the pen, not blaming God,
    not blaming them —

    (alias: buried egg of the shallow-helmet turtle
    [Actinemys marmorata]
    alias: thanks for calling the White House
    comment line))))

    For your life had stamina
    from a childhood among priests
    & far in the night,
    beyond the human realm, a cry
    released the density of nature —


It takes all the strength of the girl & her mother holding the knife to slice the holiday bird. Lipton Onion Soup flakes floating in the pan. One pinch of irreverent parsley recalls a belief in plants having feelings. The father reads Camus by the fire. Each book is a Bethlehem. The crèche has an arch where violence is delayed.

    Around the teenage galaxy
    a halo of dark matter

    In the nearby desert iron & silicon

    Between the dimensions
    in a disciplined curved sleep
    fat cherubs assert their right to exist
    for they make more sense
    than McNamara about Communists

Patterns float independently on the girl's apron. Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes. Like Demeter, the mother is great at using leftovers, & the daughter finds a skill for bringing fragments from the dead: My. heart. aches. &. a. drowsy. numbness. The brothers play chess: thump-thump, wooden-skirted figures on ovals of green felt.


    — & the owl drops flowers
    from its eyes [Dentaria californica] —
    the raceme, the stubbed stem lands straight
    in the woods — as the ancients do;
    on a hazel branch, a cocoon
    hoists itself ... with a worm's mind —;

    i-eee is released in winter
    as humans hold bones to the fire —
    they were there a long time,
    (interpreting the dead loves
    as meaning seeped through the cracks
    of centuries held by everyone —);

    the ocean rises by inches — when
    the wave withdraws, plovers pick evidence
    from married footprints as the lyric does,
    or sanity ... Luminescent creatures
    sink red in the sand —
    for they have swallowed ... all 3 sunsets!

    & the vowels pass by in English,
    the ruined banisters of the A, a bridle-
    ring of the O, the saddle of the U
    brought from the underworld;
    i had to negotiate with devils
    to retrieve even this much
    from the language of the colonizers —


Excerpted from Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman. Copyright © 2013 Brenda Hillman. Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

To Spirits of Fire
After Harvest
Some Kinds of Reading in Childhood
The Fuel of an Infinite Life
Grammar of This Life at Noon
Geminid Showers & Health Care Reform
Late Autumn Storms at Pigeon Point
At the Solstice, a Yellow Fragment
Early Sixties Christmas in the West
The Vowels Pass By in English
Something Has Been Reading the Fireroots •The Body Politic Loses Her Hair
In High Desert Under the Drones
Between Semesters, the Fragments Follow Us •We Saw the E Look Back
I Heard Flame-Folder Spring Bring Red
En Route to Bolinas, a Rose
In the Room of Glass Breasts
Equinox Ritual with Ravens & Pines
To Leon, Born before a Marathon
Fable of Work in the World
A Halting Probability, on a Train
In Summer, Everything Is Something's Twin
To Stem the Time We Spent
Two Summer Aubades, After John Clare
The Practice of Talking to Plants
Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie
Foggy Animist Morning in the Vineyard
Previous Dawn in the Next Field
West Marin Night During Perseid Showers
For One Whose Love Has Gone
Patience Swoons in the Sword Ferns
Between the Fire & the Flood
Between the Souls & the Meteors
Moaning Action at the Gas Pump
Elegy for an Activist in Winter
Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways
Rituals with Food Before the Feast•After the Feast at Year's End
Report on Visiting the District Office
After a Death in Early Spring
Imperishable Longing to Be with Others
The Hour Until We See You
Till It Finishes What It Does
After a Very Long Difficult Day
A Spiral Tries to Feel Again
You Were in Sunlight Being Prepared
On the Miracle of Nameless Feeling
As the Roots Prepare for Literature
Summer Mountain Lightning & Some Music
The Elements Are Mixed in Childhood
At the Snow Line in Summer
Sky of Omens, Floor of Fragments
The Seeds Talk Back to Monsanto
Coda: Suggested Activism for Endangered Seeds
The Nets Between Solstice & Equinox
Very Far Back in This Life
To the Writing Students at Orientation
The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice
Local Warming & Early Autumn Butterflies
Halfway Through Civilization, Late to Another
Imitating a Squirrel at my Job
Experiments with Poetry Are Taken Outdoors
A Short Walk During Late Capitalism
A Quiet Afternoon at the Office
A Quiet Afternoon at the Office II
When the Occupations Have Just Begun
After The Orionids, Near the Plaza
From the Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
Short Anthem for the General Strike
Mists From People As They Pass
Types of Fire at the Strike o—
o—o o—o—o o—o—o o—o—o
A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility
& the Tents Went Back Up
2 Journal Entries During Occupy SF
An Almanac of Coastal Winter Creatures
The Second Half of the Survey
Lyrid Meteor Showers During Your Dissertation
Poem of Hope, Almost at Equinox
Radical Lads, Blisters & Glad Summers
Mystical Lichen Falls Through the Fonts
Smart Galaxies Work with Our Mother
In the evening of the Search
Acknowledgments & Notes

What People are Saying About This

Dana Levin

“Brenda Hillman’s latest poems blaze up like matches—they dance and flicker out by the bottom of the page . . . Hillman’s book 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, Hillman has a particularly American genius.”

Charles Altieri

“Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire . . . celebrates poetry as a mode of sheer delight in the kinds of being that are committed to finding pleasure and freedom and connection as elementary conditions of being in the world.”

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