Wednesday, December 14, 2016

death tractates

This year, so far, I’ve read three really outstanding poetry books. Forced to pick a favorite I’m going with Brenda Hillman’s “Death Tractates.” It wasn’t written this year —it’s rare I read books the year they come out— but in 1992.

It has a dullsville cover, and the title makes it sound like some kind of plodding, ancient tome. I didn’t have high expectations, though I’d loved Hillman’s “Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire” a year ago. (That one I bought that on a whim and after opening it was like, ugh, I’m going to hate this. But I ended up loving it.) 

“Death Tractates” is certainly about death, and suffused with grief, but Hillman puts suffering off to one side to ask questions about existence. The poems convey death’s mystery, and treat the deceased as if she were still present, only separated a little, and unreachable. The dead woman is often referred to as a bride and she is nowhere and everywhere. The poems aren’t filled with tears or wailing, but with questions and thoughtful wondering.

Here’s the start of ”Seated Bride” -

She had died without warning in early spring.
Which seemed right.
Now that which was far off could become intimate.

I said to the guides, let’s stand
very close to the mystery
and see how far she’s gone…

One of the best poems is “Much Hurrying,” which begins:

—So much hurrying right after a death:
as if a bride were waiting!

Crocuses sliced themselves out
with their penknives. Everything well made
seemed dead to them: Camelias. Their butcher-
paper pink. The well-made poems

seemed dead to you …. 

The other two outstanding books of poetry I read this year were Ada Limon’s “Bright Dead Things,” which WAS published this year, and Michael Dickman’s “The End of the West.” Of course I read a lot of very good poetry books this year, but I'm being really strict with myself here. So: 3.

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