Poetics of Drought: Brenda Hillman

This is the third installment of a three-part essay series on poetics and drought, originally delivered as a series of panel talks at the 2016 AWP conference in Los Angeles. The first is available here; the second is available here.

Beyond the shadow of a drought

Brenda Hillman

My title “Beyond the Shadow of a Drought” comes from a recent poem; i’ll read the piece in its entirety:


               past the hazel bank….   your changed life
       lies under,  prior
     to purr—;  new species grow
            cold spores, inside
casing strewn…              Groups & nations
              howl unseen…     The mind
                            pumping itself green.   It’s
then your true eye
                            gathers     its half
loves;        pollen floats
      upstream      in doubt,
             in the shadow           of a drought;
      (put the phone down,
you’re just about
out of opposites,           oh
             dark suffering          sink…)

             In brief
        woods, there’s lignan
    at work,             past profit,
such comfort    to decay,        wood
     mind would,       so small
to say:           “apart, fled” —!
    Hold in hope, not…out— not to go
             out among them,         yet…
              (to have   important work
among the dead—)

                                   [first published in Lumina]

Writing poetry after Occupy, after Ferguson, & during the drought means to register economic, racial & environmental extremity, to participate in the mourning cycle of life & death. We mourn because of Azra Zenica & Monsanto. We mourn the terminator seeds. We mourn because of Exxon & Shell. Any smooth lyric sounds abnormal, degraded. Everything is in exile & has been in exile since the modern age began. In this poem, decaying wood, lignan, cellulose lie on the forest floor. Drought rhymes with doubt & out. The presence in the poem identifies with the imperiled species & with extremophiles; progress, profit & economic recovery are rejected. A poet can reject the appropriation of a bull for “bullish markets”; she can lose control of her tone.


i have had a Nietzschean existential dread since the drought began; i check my weather app an unreasonable number of times a day. Is it raining in Seattle? When El Niño brings a steady shower & earthworms are washed up & twist like ampersands with tiny pink gaskets around their middles, or when the weather is extremely stormy, i get unreasonably happy, though the weather is extreme so being unreasonably happy is inappropriate.


As a poet i have developed an anarchic or defiant relationship to document & research. Hydropoetics & non-irrigated poetics must wrestle with the facts. We were preparing taxes; i offered the notion that my relationship to percentages is sketchy. My husband noted that he likes “to maintain some contact with the reality community.” i consulted some members of the reality community about the drought. What do experts consider to be the connection between human-related climate change factors & the current drought? Berkeley Professor Garrison Sposito, an expert in the field of international soil science, noted to me that the greenhouse climate change factors for the current drought seem to be about 15%. [personal correspondence] At first i was disappointed this figure was so low; i thought of fudging it higher for this talk, then i thought, actually, the 15% related-to- climate-change figure is rather high. Gary also referred me to the work of Noah Diffenbaugh, a leading climate change expert at Stanford, who writes: “Our research finds that extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region – which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California – is much more likely to occur today than prior to the human emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution.” http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/september/drought-climate-change-092914.html.


The word drought comes from dreug – the Indo-European root meaning dryness. Obviously, there were droughts & human greed before there was capitalism. But even if the greed & ignorance make the fossil fuels come out of the ground & heat us up only 15% faster, 15% is a lot of annihilation. The ridge off the West Coast that kept the rain away has been dubbed the “ridiculously resistant ridge” as if it were a stubborn two-year-old. The cute alliteration is taken up by the press: naughty ridge. The drought draws attention mainly because it impacts humans economically rather than because it impacts the entire biome. What about the black bears, what of the finch with its beak open in the heat.


In literature, drought is both fact & metaphor. Joseph in the Bible, 7 years of famine. The Waste Land, in which the creative & sexual dysfunction of modern urban society—as well as the disruption of life on earth— happen because we are out of sync with the nature formerly known as nature. Jonathan Skinner and others have noted that “ecopoetics” is more a site for exploration rather than a field of study; it offers us the opportunity to re-invent relationships. As a crypto-animist pagan episcopalian socialist environmentally involved poet, i’ve been thinking a lot Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy,” which we learned at Pomona College involved projecting an “inappropriate amount of feeling” onto nature; it was an exaggeration of identification that was frowned upon. But there are other areas of investigation now. In their evolving studies, young scholars of ecopoetics like Aaron Moe reinvent “zoopoetics.” Professor Eric Earnhardt, author of “The ‘Sentient Plume’ : The Theory of the Pathetic Fallacy in Anglo-American Avian Poetry, 1856-1945,” explained to me recently that he is writing about “moments of ‘critical anthropomorphism’ of animals” in poetry; he calls these the “explorations of the mind’s instinct to humanize nature, including skepticism about and indulgence in this ultimately unavoidable instinct.” Eric & i share the opinion that Ruskin got a bad rap. He notes: “Ruskin wrote that he was very glad of ‘perceiving and feeling’ the sea as a friend because the personification allowed him the ‘possession of a higher truth, which did not interfere with my hold of the physical one’ (Letters 36.88). Indeed, possessing higher truths that do not interfere with physical ones names the psychological origin of the theory of the pathetic fallacy…” (17) The move away from “higher” might be a cultivation of an Empathetic Fallacy that would allow close relationships to other beings in a subject-object continuum without imposing destructive systems. This continuum, Angela Hume points out that Adorno points out that Hegel points out, is an acceptable way to make pre-Enlightenment magical thinking work for the philosopher or thinking poet. “(Rescuing) Hegel’s Magical Thinking.” Evental Aesthetics 1.1 (winter 2012): 11-38. To engage with creatures & species beyond what makes rational sense is one job of poetry. We are poets. We don’t need to be reasonable even most of the time & can act with a sense of the connectedness of life forms. Crypto-animist activism. If eucalyptus is in drought, i am in drought.


i hope to address fracking in a poem, & when i do, i hope to lose control of my tone. Clearly the
fossil fuel industry has lost control of its tone. Some argue that, in light of the minuscule amount of water used by fracking companies (70 million gallons per year), the problem of wasting water through fracking is non-existent. But fracking’s toxic chemicals— methanol, benzene, & others— poison the water table permanently & fracking water cannot be cleaned or re-used. Such wasteful practices cannot be separated from our drought. People can set fire to the water that comes out of their faucets in some communities. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/california_fracking/faq.html


Here in California, the grazing of herd animals depended on the introduction of Europeanized grasses. Indigenous peoples had not ruined the grasslands by planting the invasive species of grasses but according to Kat Anderson, by the end of the 19th century, more than 28 million acres of California were in under cultivation, largely to support monoculture farming. [Tending the Wild, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005 p 96] i grew up in a desert & my father worked in agriculture. i felt identified with species that lived on less water; it prepared me for the economy of poetry: gila monster, ocotillo, mourning dove. The Pascua Yaqui tribe, who lived just outside Tucson borders, engaged in dry land agriculture; their houses were made of adobe with fences & small yards with bright gardens. The farmlands were owned communally; farmers grew corn & beans for hundreds of years choosing crops carefully, conserving water in monsoon season so as not to deplete ground water. When i think about the wisdom of desert farmers, i wonder whether we really need big fat strawberries on our cereal all year? Conversely, when i am very sad about the drought & the waste, i imagine the free life of water underground, in the desert or in our own northern areas. When i worked on Practical Water, i visited the hydrologic regions of California & recorded the interconnected & fragmentary images from up and down California, from the rushing water the Trinity River, the ice storms, down the Smith River, the emergence in the Tuolumne, the Bridal Veil falls, down to the Owens Valley east of LA. Tracing the life of water has reminded me of the abundant hopefulness & uselessness of poetry.


i have great hope for the confluence of ecological, political & poetics education in the university & outside. My students are excited when they discover the new anthologies of ecopoetry that connect formal inventions to the politics of environmental loss. The innovations— more inclusive than 80s experimentalism— bring in a range of references across disciplines as well as an intense commitment to the non-human creatures, landscapes & weather. The students study & write in ruptured & ravaged forms, hybridized genres, & insert url links, & cross tonal chasms. The transformative value of some the techniques of 20th & 21st century experimental writing has been well rehearsed and interrogated —including the possible value of recording nothing but documentary material into a text. Poets figure out that the best poetry is always wildly inventive and spiritually accurate, giving off spinning energy from the place where nothing can be solved. No poetic invention will solve the drought or bring on an economic revolution; this work must be done by methods other than poetry.


Professor Sposito adds to his note to me: “I think it is fair to say… that our experience of the recent drought does not get translated into wisdom, or even true understanding, until artists have explored it.” [Personal correspondence] Remember wisdom? There is currently something of a wisdom drought & poets can supply some of it, feeling the way they often do. Feelings & facts, spirit & matter, magic & the mundane belong together in poetry & the drought finds us up against the end of a time of excess, called to choose our words in the spirit of the Yaqui desert farmers & with thought & beauty even if we’re sinking.


i will end with a stanza and a half of “El Nino Organon,” a poem from Cascadia; it was written 2 decades ago during another El Niño season. El Niño, the figure of the boy, is a kind of unpredictable musician, making broken music off the coast of California as the weather patterns have been thrown off & he has to navigate that brokenness:

The boy
wants his ocean to stop melting.
Wants the baby-seal-head-looking surfers peeling off
their wetsuits in the parking lot
at Montara to look up. So
much for the problem of being
unique. Weather was unique, moving to

a samemess: the boy plays insane
music in its head. We welcomed
weather, we wanted each sentence to
have toothy margins more different even
than a snake. Small sizes of
light shine off surfaces to give
great value to stars. Storms unravel
how we wrecked it; color stopped
by, looking blue, purple. Didn’t you
feel everything, finally? Weather taught
you to write funny. When it stops
being wrecked, we’ll write normally.