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About this poet

Brenda Hillman was born in Tucson, Arizona, on March 17, 1951. She was educated at Pomona College and received her MFA at the University of Iowa. Her upbringing in a deeply religious Baptist family surfaces in many of her poems, especially those that appear in Loose Sugar (Wesleyan University Press, 1997) and the California mission poems of Cascadia (Wesleyan University Press, 2001).

She is the author of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 2013); Practical Water (Wesleyan University Press, 2011); Pieces of Air in the Epic (Wesleyan University Press, 2005); Cascadia; Loose Sugar, which was a finalist for National Book Critic's Circle; Bright Existence (Wesleyan University Press, 1993), a finalist for Pulitzer Prize; Death Tractates (Wesleyan University Press, 1992); Fortress (Wesleyan University Press, 1989); and White Dress (Wesleyan University Press, 1985). Her poems have also been collected in three chapbooks: The Firecage (A+Bend Press, 2000); Autumn Sojourn (Em Press, 1995); and Coffee, 3 A.M. (The Penumbra Press, 1982).

Her work has been called eclectic, mercurial, sensuous, and luminescent. In an interview in Rain Taxi, Hillman said "It is impossible to put boundaries on your words, even if you make a poem. Each word is a maze. So you are full of desire to make a memorable thing and have the form be very dictated by some way that it has to be. But the poem itself is going to undo that intention. It's almost like you're knitting a sweater and something is unraveling it on the other end."

Hillman is also the coeditor, along with Patricia Dienstfrey, of The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), and the editor of a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems published by Shambhala Press in 1995.

Her honors include awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America, along with a Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. Hillman received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2012. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts And Sciences in 2017 and was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2016.

Hillman has taught at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and the University of California, Berkeley. She holds the Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, and lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the poet Robert Hass.


Bibliography

Poetry

Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 2013)
Practical Water (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)
Pieces of Air in the Epic (Wesleyan University Press, 2005)
Cascadia (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)
Loose Sugar (Wesleyan University Press, 1997)
Bright Existence (Wesleyan University Press, 1993)
Death Tractates (Wesleyan University Press, 1992)
Fortress (Wesleyan University Press, 1989)
White Dress (Wesleyan University Press, 1985)

Holding On

—So, one by one I pull the lice from your red hair.
One by one I try to split them with my fingernails;

no use, they hold on
as they were taught to. Still, they glisten
like heavenly sparks in the morning light
of the bathroom.

I have to pull extra hard on many of them,
use the turquoise, fine-toothed comb
provided by the pharmacy.
They hold on with all their strength:
each has its individual hair to love,
each pus-colored creature
has a genius plan for not leaving you.

I fling the lice out in the air,
thinking how the world despises them,
the other mothers of Berkeley,
and the teachers who have not appreciated their beauty.

And though I’ve had to poison them again,
I’ve always understood them,
I also wanted to get that close,
wanted to cling to you in just that manner,
even go back to heaven with you so we won’t
have to address this problem of the separate
you-and-me,
of outer and inner.

I hope we will have our same bodies there
and the lice will have their same bodies,
that each hopeful tear-shaped egg
will be allowed to cling forever, not be pulled
between love’s destiny
and a lesser freedom—

From Bright Existence. Copyright © 1993 by Brenda Hillman. Courtesy of Brenda Hillman and Wesleyan University Press.

From Bright Existence. Copyright © 1993 by Brenda Hillman. Courtesy of Brenda Hillman and Wesleyan University Press.

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 2013). She received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2012 and currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet

poem

i.

    —& humans walked to the edge of the sand
  through a bank of verbena & fog;  
     they thought they’d never get over
the deaths, but they were starting to. Worry
     about money rested in their phones. Talk of
 candidates had stalled. Some sang. Grays of

   

poem

A brenda is missing—where is she?
Summon the seeds & weeds, the desert whooshes. Phone the finch
with the crowded beak;      a little pretenda
                 is learning to read
in the afternoon light near the cactus caves. Near

poem
The bride tree puts down its roots
below the phyla. It is there
when we die & when we are born,
middle & upper branches reaching
the planet heart by the billions
during a revolution we don’t see.

Quarks & leptons are cooling
on their infant stems, spinning the spinning
brain of matter, fled to