Friday 29 May 2009

So Here We Are 21

Click here to listen to So Here We Are on MiPoradio


The Long Beach poet and writer, Donna Hilbert, has been writing about death, grieving, class, alienation, motherhood, displacement and survival in a series of books since 1990. Brought up in the Red River Valley of Oklahoma near the Texas border, she has spent most of her life in southern California. What is distinctive about her work is not so much its seeming transparency and purity of language but rather its deployment and repetition of certain key words, phrases and poems throughout her oeuvre in order to give it semantic structure and weight. This enables her to expose unresolved aspects of the human situation and constraints on the self, without prejudice or sentimentality that reverberate over time. Her work can be read as a fusion and extension from a feminist perspective of some of the literary techniques employed by Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. The use of precise economic and social detail, which needs to be examined for its context and omissions, dominates over form. This is evident in poems, such as ‘Economy Lesson’, ‘Interior Decoration’ and ‘Aunt Velma’ in Deep Red (Event Horizon Press 1993) and ‘Consciousness Raising’ in Transforming Matter (Pearl Editions 2000 pp. 31-32). There is a striving to convey raw emotion within sharply defined social situations, as in poems such as, ‘Craving’ in Transforming Matter (page 22). Repetition is utilised to move beyond the singular moment and ordinary things and objects, such as letters, shoes, dresses, playing cards, lunch boxes, magazines and so on, accrue extra meaning.
Hilbert reinforces this sense of unresolved matters returning by repeating certain poems in subsequent collections. They are used as echoes and to potentially show through ambiguity new meaning in their different context. Take the example of ‘Rank’, which appears as the first poem in the Dear Heart section of Transforming Matter (page 27), a collection dedicated to her husband killed by a motorist whilst cycling his bicycle early on the morning of 25 August 1998 and concerned with the social context of the narrator’s love affair with her husband. ‘Rank’ can be read as a loving memory of a man who obeyed his mother in teaching the narrator how to play bridge. This is supported by the context of the other poems in the collection. When ‘Rank’ reappears in Traveler in Paradise (Pearl Editions 2004 page 51) as the third poem in the Transforming Matter section it can be read more as a poem of social control, class and fitting in where the emphasis is more on the narrator and mother-in-law rather than mother-in-law and son or narrator and son.

Here’s ‘Rank’

I never wore white shoes
before memorial Day
or suede in summer.
I crossed my legs
primly at my ankle,
wore a panty girdle
and a full-length slip,
no shadow of body
apparent through my dress.
I knew better than
to crackle gum,
or walk down the street
cigarette dangling
from my mouth,
knew better than
to pierce my ears,
like some common girl.
Still, his mother
rooted out the tell-tale
signs, traces of a family
line who worked for wages
in “mediocre” jobs.
The day after
we’d spent the night together
and got caught,
he came to my apartment
with a deck of cards
that he spread across
the kitchen table,
saying Mother says
I have to teach you bridge
so we’ll have something in common.
He arranged the cards
in suits to demonstrate
their ranking,
clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades,
saying spades are the boss
trump, outrank everything,

‘Rank’ works as a compressed narrative where each detail has meaning and power that echoes over time and shows the upwardly mobile, transgressive narrator out trumped by the superior class of her future mother-in-law. It is a poem about transgression and consequent exposure.

It was the Transforming Matter collection that led to the making of the short film Grief Becomes Me: A Poet’s Journey, by director Christine Fugate, an interweaving of documentary footage and narrative interpretations of the poetry. Made by a team of women filmmakers, the film explores Hilbert’s depiction of death and renewal and reveals some of the inner life of grief. The title Grief Becomes Me indicates an enfolding and overpowering of a self by an intense emotion as well as fitness to and by implication beauty within that state.

Here is the poem from Transforming Matter (page 45):

Grief Becomes Me

You’ve never looked better
my friends Edward and Neil
tell me and lean close
for a clearer view.
I know what they mean
and believe it’s true,
the same way earth and sky
wash to a radiant clean
after relentless days of rain.
How you would present me
with pieces of sea glass
tumbled smooth
from journeying canyons
and rivers to the ocean
and back again
washing up at our feet –
bits of amber, green,
and the rarest stellar blue.
Everything pure and impure
has leached from the soil
of my face,
and in the corners of my eyes,
hard crystals form.

The poem’s focus on perception and representation emphasises the need to look closer at things. The lines ‘Everything pure and impure / has leached from the soil / of my face,’ scorches the notion of outer appearance reflecting inner being. It is the final line that shifts the poem’s attention back to chemistry and process. The use of ‘hard’ in the final line takes the possible meaning of crystal away from any pleasing geometrical shape to crystallisation and the difference between glass and crystal solids. The poem thus ends with an appeal to the difference between solids and glasses as representations and the knowledge that the process of forming a glass does not release the latent heat of fusion.

Hilbert’s latest book, The Green Season (World Parade Books 2008), is a poetry collection sandwiched between two short stories. The title plays on the multilayered meaning of green as an adjective and harks back to the poem of displacement, ‘Seattle’ in Transforming Matter (page 30). In ‘Seattle’ the narrator is as green as the evergreen trees and grasses of Seattle and is ‘green too at nineteen’, and is within the range of meaning of OED 8, not fully developed, OED 8c, still raw, and OED 8d simple, unsophisticated, gullible and so on. There is the underlying possibility of implying OED 3a as in green with envy, although this is not fully supported. This mention of green, a recurrent theme throughout the oeuvre, comes with references to the novelist, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter and has the narrator so lonely that she engages wrong numbers in conversation. The use of green in the title The Green Season moves from adjective to noun and implies OED 2c a season of the year, characterised by abundance of verdure, OED 10b retaining the traces of newness, perceptibly fresh or recently set and not completely hardened and OED 9 as a noun, verdant. There is also contained with this OED 6b adjective, of immaterial things, especially the memory of a person, which echoes throughout part of the collection. It is therefore using ‘green’ as a marker over time, place and social situation so that it echoes in a new context and shows a movement forwards. The collection charts a continuing journey towards connectedness, of self and to family and friends that is thwarted by opposition, setback and death. The past is still shaping the future in the present, memory and dreams, and experience, family relations and psychological history temper the promise of renewal. The path to regeneration is thus strewn with psychic markers and this is represented in the collection by previously published poems and stories.
The opening story, ‘The Early Days’, from the award-winning collection, Women Who Make Money and the Men Who Love Them (Staple First Editions 1994), concerns a woman’s journey out of grief to connectedness with the world through language. The social detail is clearly defined in relation to the narrator’s confinement within the gender role assigned by her family and class. The narrator, often with her mother, uses new words, such as cantaloupe, foreign words and swearing as ways into a newer and better social space and as buffers against failure. Cantaloupe can be read as a sign of health, fresh diet, as well as new word and part of the journey outwards. However, the narrator fails to find a way out, fails to connect and disintegrates in suffering. The happiness of the title poem, ‘The Green Season’, is prefaced by a sequence of poems, including ‘Domestic Arts’, ‘Madeleine’ and ‘The Explanations’ which show a generation of alcoholic middle class women handing down their coping mechanisms to their daughters and neighbours. Here the narrator as a young mother rebels against this and attempts to break free of their great unhappiness. They are all in some way seeking a language for hunger, grief and anger and other meanings for passion and what it is to be a woman. The narrator as a mature woman operates more on instinct in ‘This, Happily’ when she takes a new lover and knows that competition is not far away.

He Who Takes My Sorrow Away

He who takes my sorrow away
my friend has named as her lover.
Who wouldn’t wish for that,
if only for an hour or two,
that sorrow might
be lifted with the skirt,
discarded like a soiled shirt.

Hilbert refuses any easy closure or notion of healing after grief in favour of a psychologically more probing perspective of self and others, self and self. The collection has an uplifting philosophical poise, highlighted in the poem, ‘Waste’, and although remarkably close to memoir, is profound in its critique of therapy as social control and understanding of the necessity for a set of historical and psychological markers that underpin a narrative self on the brink of renewal.