Sunday, November 26, 2006



Pieces of Air in the Epic by Brenda Hillman
(Wesleyan University Press, 2005)

[First published in The Poetry Project Newsletter, October/November 2006, Ed. Brendan Lorber]

Peace in the Epic

Pieces of Air in the Epic is the seventh book of poetry by Brenda Hillman, a recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim fellowship and NEA grant. The second book in her tertrology of the four elements, Pieces of Air in the Epic explores the concept of air. Cascadia, her previous book, covered the element of earth.

In an interview with Jenn Tynes in Octopus Magazine, Brenda Hillman discusses her ideas about the epic: “The sense that epic time, time in epic, has to do with warfare, is obvious if you've spent any time at all with Homer and Virgil. I've also had the notion that punching holes in time, in 'about,’ is part of the job of the artist...” The “air” Hillman introduces with these holes “provides a space for cultural healing.” The ruptures are in the scope and subject of the epic -- both ATM’s and cell phones intrude into her poems and puncture the distant, timeless “epic” tone.

In Pieces of Air in the Epic, the distant epic past and everyday present are blended, not seamlessly, but with a measured chaos. In “Air in the Epic,” she writes “A flicker passes by: air/let out of a Corvette tire.) //Side stories leaked into the epic,/told by its lover, the world.” Everyday “corvette” time is combined with epic time, as represented by “its lover, the world.” This poem not only explores leaks in the epic, it presents that leakage in visual form by unusual spacing -- two parallel columns, one packed full, one mostly empty.

“Echo 858,” a meditation on a painting, explores breaking apart epic form and thought, trying “to see the gargoyle/pushing/from the back of the painting” -- those events that only occur in the peripheral vision of the warlords, presidents and spin masters.

Several of Hillman’s ”Nine Untitled Epyllions” (mini-epics) are printed with white text on black, which makes the poems seem a photographic negative of the typical epic. This sequence of poems is dedicated to the victims of the war in Iraq and is Hillman’s most focused attack on the present administration’s attempt to make itself seem epic and heroic.

The first Epyllion begins with: “Something about breathing/The air inside a war”
and continues on to describe suffocation by propaganda: “Decent amounts of free forevers”. “Freedom” is the catchphrase of the American bureaucrats scrambling to justify the war in Iraq, who also claim “Horizons emphatically lifted in them”.

Hillman’s poetry constantly corrects that propaganda. As she describes in her interview with Jenn Tynes, the American flag has not only become a barcode, but is also a product of slave labor in Vietnam.

Is Hillman successful in adding air to the epic? In most cases, yes. She does fascinating things with language and the space of the text. She plays with words in a way that make you blink and pull back, although her trick of using unusual adjectives as nouns becomes less surprising after a few repetitions. She puns frequently and with great purpose and invention. Her uses of “seam/seem” are unending.

The collection lags in only few places. One poem, “Your Fate,” which repeatedly mentions a need for tech support (a plea for God, perhaps) falls flat and seems out of place, and a sequence of poems near the end, beginning with "An Oddness" and ending with "Epoch of Dust", is repetitive and not as fresh as the rest of Hillman’s work. But on the whole the book functions with marvelous strangeness. It bears repeated readings, and with re-reading, each poem acquires more depth and resonance. This is not poetry that ever tires or bores you. There’s enough here to keep you busy for years. Hillman does not explode the epic, she takes out the seams and refits it to a new kind of body.


Christine Hamm is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Drew University, where she was awarded a Caspersen Scholarship for Academic Promise. Her poetry has been published in The Adirondack Review, Pebble Lake Review, Horseless Press, Lodestar Quarterly, Blue Fifth Review, Poetry Midwest, MiPoesias, Rattle, Snow Monkey and Exquisite Corpse, among others. In 2004, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been anthologized in Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader and The Murdering of Our Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet, both by Soft Skull Press. Christine is on the editorial board of several literary journals, including Vernacular. She teaches English at Rutgers University and poetry writing at Women's Studio Center in Queens, NY. She has two chapbooks out: The Animal Husband and The Salt Daughter. Her full-length book, The Transparent Dinner, was just recently published by Mayapple Press. For more about her, including reviews of her work, go to


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