Brenda Hillman is a poet with a wide range who has produced everything from gentle and accessible love poems to experimental work. In Practical Water, she offers layered explorations of the earth and its threats and promises. Hillman began writing as a child in Arizona, and her first poems contained a striking mixture of science and metaphysics that revealed an interest in nature and its conservation even then. She published her first collection in 1982, and her books, which have come out fairly regularly since, have remained concerned with the world and the possible, evanescent spirit. “I’m always trying to figure out what God is and why matter exists and whether it contains spirit or not,” she has said in an interview. Her poems do not explain but weigh possible explanations, and they work not toward closure but toward a way of living that would make sense in a world without an explanation. They are thus satisfying to readers who are wary of easy solutions.
Hillman’s 1997 collection Loose Sugar may be her best known, as it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. In it, her experimental direction announced itself through poems that were more opaque, more difficult, and less contained than her earlier work. These poems’ boundaries are more expansive, looking to a kind of gnosticism not to explain but to explore what the poet sees as the limitless possibility of the mind and the world. She celebrates the unknown and takes joy in it, all the while lamenting the things that human beings do that are limiting and destructive.
Hillman’s Practical Water is moving and exciting. Her twenty-first century work has centered on the medieval four elements: Cascadia (2001) was devoted to poems about earth, Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005) explored the element of air, and a last book in the series will be about fire. This collection presents readers with seemingly all possible forms of waterbodies of it, chemistries of it, its mythic freight, and its practical necessity. While some of the collection’s meaning is under the surface, enough glints of it shine through to maintain the attention of even a casual poetry reader. Hillman has explained that reading poetry is “not like going on Google and getting the answer.You go to a poem to get the mystery.” The poems in Practical Water explore the mystery of water through abundant, evocative images and metaphors and through juxtapositions that explain as they delight.
The book is divided into four unnamed parts, each very different in style, containing free-verse and sometimes free-association poems about the precious, irreplaceable element of water and its central part in people’s lives. Each section begins with a group of quotations that help serve as entry portals for the complex and challenging work. The style is refreshing because it facilitates a flow of connections, some startling, that may produce sparks of recognition in readers. The first of the unnamed sections is perhaps the easiest to followperhaps as it should be because readers need to get a sense of Hillman’s ambiguities, her swiftly moving, layered verse, before being confronted with its difficulty. Readers need to wade in. The book is politicalit is a green book as well as a blue oneand refers to many historical injustices and oversights, some nearly forgotten. The four sections are quite different in style and content, seeming to divide one of the four elements into its own four parts.
The first part begins with “Partita for Sparrows,” a gently compassionate account of burying “the sparrows of Europe,” “their breasts light as an ounce of tea,” in the areas affected by World War II. The sparrowsin their vulnerability and the care taken with their tiny bodiessuggest a fresh look at war and sorrow. They perhaps also suggest that no loss of life, however small, should be forgotten, and that one can ill afford to miss the lessons implied. The biblical Book of Matthew says, Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
The comfort in the biblical passage is not reflected in the poem, however. Moreover, Hillman’s poems are not religiousexcept in a large, exploratory sense. It is human beings, not God, who are...
(The entire section is 1809 words.)