Brenda Hillman, over the course of her daring career, has always understood that a poem itself, as language, as act of resistance, is a complex personal, environmental, spiritual, cultural, and political system, an ecology, what Christopher Arigo has called “a microcosmic ecosystem in which itself dwells.” Risk and sanctuary, beauty and horror, growth and decay coexist. “In High Desert Under the Drones” is a haibun, a Japanese literary composition comprised of prose and haiku, often focusing on landscape and travel. The backstory of Hillman’s poem involves a trip she and her husband, the poet Robert Hass (pictured in the poem’s photograph), took with two friends to Creech Airforce Base in the desert outside Las Vegas. In a note to me about the poem, Hillman writes, “[Creech] is the place from which the drones (unmanned aircraft) are sent for surveillance—and bombing—to Afghanistan. Because we couldn’t manage to time our protest with those of other groups, we drove to Creech on our own, just the four of us; we did a protest for two days, holding signs and reading poetry—off the highway—as the service personnel entered and left the base. ‘Practice’ drones flew over our heads while we did our action. It is extremely eerie and creepy, not to mention horrifying. The pilots sit in Nevada and ‘fly’ the aircraft which are actually flown from sites nearer to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The drones are responsible for the deaths of many innocents and are extremely costly.”
On the page, Hillman’s haibun, two prose passages pivoting around a photograph/ haiku cluster, creates a space for negotiating its subversive vision. The opening prose field offers up the central public questions of the poem: “Is poetry pointless?,” for instance, or are “its points . . . moving, as in a fire,” a query that reminds us that words can be weapons, too. What does it mean that these drones of destruction “could [instead] make clouds of white writing, cilia, knitting, soul weaving, spine without nerves, dentures of the west, volcano experiments, geometry weather breath & salt” or that the young airmen feel “lucky to have a job in an economy like this.” Perhaps most radically, Hillman invites the reader to wonder what to make of the statement that “[t]he letters of this poem are also lucky to have a job for they are insects & addicts & thieves”?
The opening prose passage culminates, “We hold our signs up. We’re all doing our jobs. Trucks bring concrete for the landing strip they’ve just begun,” and then, about mid-way through the haibun, this first field of prose concludes and falls into white space in which the reader encounters an embedded photograph, visual grammar depicting a slant-shot view of Hass holding up a protest sign before a stark scene of sage and highway. Lineated around the photograph is a roughly 15-syllable haiku—“A cliff stands out in winter / Twin ravens drop fire from its eyes”—that helps us to see the torsos of the protesters as themselves kindsof cliffs, pitched against the winter landscape, with poetry, words, like black birds deploying “fire”—ire, anger, protest, life force—from their kept vigil.
From the poem’s start—“We are western creatures; we can stand for hours in the sun”—Hillman lets us know that her vision is neither simplistic nor isolated. That “we” forces the reader to locate herself or himself in relation to the voice, a “we” that is “western”—as in Occidental, as in not Eastern, as in American, as in left coast, as in mortal, heading the way the sun does. “We” are implicated in the very machinations of the Western world the plural narrator protests. It should be no surprise, then, that Hillman moves, after her haiku, from the collective voice of the opening passage to a first-person speaker who forthrightly and with wry, self-conscious accountability and humor confesses, “My inner life is not so inner & maintains the vascular system of a desert plant. I’m grateful to Samuel Beckett & to my high school boyfriend whose drunk father yelled when we closed the door & read The Unnamable during the Tet offensive. A sense of the absurd can always help.”
Hillman honors the absurdity of the poem’s predicament and the paradoxes inherent everywhere—in the gorgeous palette of the borax mines, the work ethic of the young airmen at their deadly task, the resorting to and ignoring of words in time of spiritual and political difficulty—perhaps most powerfully at the poem’s conclusion, when, as “[w]e stand there [and] the young airmen settle into their routine,” Hillman reminds us of the belief in certain early Gnostic texts that the soul must pass through several spheres on its way to heaven, offering secret names as passwords to cross thresholds along the way. Those names—the naming of things, the noticing of things to be named—may “grow heavier as you carry them between the spheres,” but Hillman’s poem testifies to the crucial importance of speaking one’s understanding of the truth despite futility, boundaries, irony, and crises that might otherwise overwhelm us into silence.