Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

On “Green Pants and a Bamboo Flute” by Brenda Hillman

Stacks Image 230

Oaks tear up the storm floor
Nothing left to warn
The poisoned rat has poisoned the owl
The striped air of the state is choked
With pointed salty star materials
They've cut the tips off dollar bills
Now chipped stars everywhere seems like
Death planes with Daisy Chains
Bomb planes with cute little names
Swordfish stab the water's skin
The sea has no plot
Earlier thinkers thought of air
As a mist not a context
With each bomb the part
That was narrow shrinks.
Our god passes by briefly
From another existence
With his pretty floating rib
The one they call the twelfth
The webbed arch of caravans
Frames the desert horror
The owl's eyes follow them
on this side of the pale

One night in a vision
Your future car was buried
Today they drive the buried car
Turn like a three-part song
Electricity wants not to be anymore
Or to be darktricity
The brain is an atmosphere of rooms
A situation without a future
Where us presides over an it
The doom's-whim-bride's-trace fog
Doubles as a shroud
If the flute cannot be found
Its breath is in you
Making an @ sign of sex or grain
What was it thinking of
The catkins look so like grenades
Maybe the particle spirits
Will spin in the at of each address
Knock the wheel of fate from its orbit
Race to a curled up
Solomon's sleep in the clock's
Ring moist with air

Brenda Hillman’s “Green Pants & a Bamboo Flute” appeared in an online anti-war anthology before it was published in her book
Pieces of Air in the Epic.  Its most ostensible theme is the anguishing omnipresence in Hillman's consciousness of the American war in Iraq. But Hillman’s unique poetic architectures are integral to her poems, and often (as in the title sequences of Cascadia and Loose Sugar) they are very elaborate. Here, the title “Green Pants & Bamboo Flute” immediately sets into curious relation two elements (pants and flute). Almost every subsequent line does the same (not always as twin nouns).  The notable exceptions are where Hillman’s hallmark, quirky semantic shifts, often launched by sequential modifiers—“pointed salty star materials,” “cute little names,” or “his pretty floating rib”—quicken the syntactical movement and shift the register upward. 

The stanzas map out a relationship that is even more temporal than textual.  The first unfolds in PRESENT tense: tear, is, have cut, seems, stab, has.  The next stanza overlays references to “Today” and “Now” with specific allusions to the FUTURE.  Words like want and bride are also future-oriented.  The third stanza invokes the PAST with its first word, “Earlier,” its reference to a myth of origin, and its image of a “webbed arch of caravans” (which calls to mind U.S. calvary). 

But if we read into the construction of the poem indications of Present, Future, and Past in the first three stanzas, how do we consider the fourth stanza, the shortest one? That’s precisely where “fate” and the “clock’s/ Ring” mete out the time, joining it “in the @ of each address” to its events.  Read this way, the poem is a secret history of eternal recurrence.  (A disturbing realization, considering the allusions to violence and war). 

Still, the full impact of Hillman’s poems arises from the relationship between larger structural patterns and smaller, spidery ones.  For instance, we quickly find that each stanza weaves together natural, technological, and philo-theosophical terms.  And each stanza bares a black hourglass: poison, death planes, darktricity, doom, shroud, desert horror, grenades, etc.  The spin of material, tone, and reference is not unlike “the spin in the @ of each address”.  But Hillman’s lexicon is loaded here.  On the one hand, address locates each reader, each atrocity, each thing.  But at the same time, address designates the speaking voice of “particle spirits,” that resident chorus in Hillman’s expressively animistic universe who so often address the reader. 

“Green Pants & a Bamboo Flute” anticipates some of Hillman’s concerns in her next (great) book,
Practical Water: the materiality of language (in her attention to symbols, typeface, and the use of reduplicatives, for instance), the focus on relationship (here in juxtapositions, in Practical Water through prepositions such as “up & under & in”), and political passions concomitant with experiencing the moment as temporal and so exigent (“our little hourglass up on the screen”). Because in all of her work, Hillman reinterprets objectivity as intersubjectivity, and hierarchy as holism, her poems unhinge us.  The tonal register in her recent poems is often a harmonic of keening, outrage, and palpable exuberance.  They tune us toward an attentive listening, as though all our cells were ears.