Extra Hidden Life, among the Days: A Potent Symbiosis of Anger and Hope

by Matthew Williams

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Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), Brenda Hillman’s tenth full-length collection of poetry, is a potent salve for life’s corrosive onrush. Her list of ingredients is unorthodox, ranging from “FUCK CAPITALISM” signs to the family gun, our constant phone-checking, and Roza Luxemburg’s letters from prison—all undergirded by the knowledge that the extremophiles and lichen will outlast us. Hillman’s talent and intellect are on full display. She is at once political, autobiographical, and experimental.

“Describing Tattoos to a Cop” recounts her arrest during a protest of the Keystone XL pipeline and risks an ideogrammatic construction that carries no ready-made sonic equivalent: “=$=$=$=$=$=$=>>.” Many of the book’s pleasures come from this attention to the materiality of linguistic symbols and the multivalent conceptual resonances therein: the shape of an “f” creates an “awning of breath,” and refrains and @ symbols become “Monticello’s columns” painted on the page. After the book’s first section, Hillman extends this penchant to use the page as canvas to integrate photos into the poems.

As gratifying as these formal experiments are, Extra Hidden Life, among the Days’ strength also stems from a simmering discontent that asks how we who “sit in the dusk with poetry / loving the world” can wrangle meaning from—or simply continue to exist in—a world that often does not love us back. Even in “The Rosewood Clauses,” a heartfelt and philosophical elegy written for her father, we hear it bubbling up as she recognizes her failure to “convince him of the horror of capitalism.” And yet, while Hillman opts for a slow burn over the course of the collection, there are moments when the heat spikes and sharp rebukes of contemporary life boil over with unmistakable clarity: “the changes are taking too fucking long. We’re tired of this.”

For all the quiet anger, Hillman’s poems give us a hope that is not contrapuntal to outrage, but braided into it. We are reminded of “the young” and that “it’s not too late for the trees,” just as we are reminded of the “full-of-plastic Pacific,” that it is “too late for countries.” For Hillman, anger and hope form a composite organism capable of attending to the work of social and environmental justice—and traversing “the chasm” American tribalism continues to widen. At the same time, she offers us no easy answers and recognizes the monumental difficulty of this task, that “if the cops start to hit,” we might not be able to resist hitting back. However, as Hillman writes so incisively, we “must cross over to continue being human.” She gives us Extra Hidden Life, among the Days to act as signpost.

Washington Square