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From the depths of sorrow following the sudden death of her closest female mentor, Brenda Hillman asks anguished questions in this book of poems about separation, spiritual transcendence, and the difference between life and death. Both personal and philosophical, her work can be read as a spirit-guide for those mourning the loss of a loved one and as a series of fundamental ponderings on the inevitability of death and separation. At first refusing to let go, desperate to feel the presence of her friend, the poet seeks solace in a belief in the spirit world. But life, not death, becomes the issue when she begins to see physical existence as "an interruption" that preoccupies us with shapes and borders. "Shape makes life too small," she realizes. Comfort at last comes in the idea of "reverse seeing": that even if she cannot see forward into the spirit world, her friend can see "backward into this world" and be with her.
Death Tractates is the companion volume to a philosophical poetic work entitles Bright Existence, which Hillman was in the midst of writing when her friend died. Published by Wesleyan University Press in 1993, it shares many of the same Gnostic themes and sources.
noticed that, in its separateness, each sample seemed to hold its own surprise, like minutes, though the boxes of course were empty: “Wedding,” “Birthday,” the masculine sportsman’s type of gift wrap with crossed rifles and golf clubs and the paisley princeton type—I thought, these boxes do their jobs because they have borders; I need some too. The lady took such central care to curl the ribbons— took her about twenty minutes really— I loved her hands as she debated how to put the
mockingbird stayed all morning with its row of checkmarks and the verse that sounded like teacher-teacher-teacher police! police! Maybe that bird was her— so versatile; it did not cling— let go said the What. Let go said everything Sweet afternoons of exhaustion. Trips to the library with the other moms. Taking the books to the chrome mouth of the book deposit and hesitating before letting the slender paperback slide down on its very own bardo journey; Maybe I should have warned
to be a part of Bright Existence, at first allowing them only a certain number of lines, twisting them to fit assignments. But they would be written only when/as the present form showed itself to me (like a butterfly opening out on a leaf). In this process, the relationship between the two books changed as well. Though this book was a sister to the other, it still needed to break away, to stand by itself. February 1989–January 1990 B.H. FOR LMP 1947–1989 On the day that I am nigh unto
shine in matter can, for a brief time, be made fitting, and what was I now in relation to her. But I remembered how things advance in other worlds if they are sufficiently loved and I sought to ‘advance’ her, even in heaven— My my my my. A few months then the face faded. First the edges then the center. I longed for her because she had turned away toward what did not include me. I longed for her though I understood what important work she had, though I knew she was “very busy”—
instance by the ground. My friend saw backward into this world. In the tent, where wisdom is eaten by the snake, the poem sees into us. Days and nights of this; the job of the living is to be seen through. As a swallow, harrowing the raptor, dives in and out of the forbidden ovals, seeming to derange them, only to realize the raptor doesn’t care, goes on with its crenellated flight, so I entered the mystery and the mystery ignored me— Baffled by death, I sought her in myself,