If I were to write a review of Brenda Hillman’s new book, I could begin with a bold politically charged statement like, “Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and others have suggested that we can’t do away with the exploitation of systematic white supremacy unless we do away with mind-body dualism, and Extra Hidden Life, among the Days provides us with tools for doing so. Or I could start with its charming & audacious alternative to some of Whitman’s cringe-worthy excesses:
the elevator stars. Don’t look for me under
your bootsouls, look for us spinning multiply
with our poems among elements
& our imitators (142)
This (plural) speaker could be the “extra hidden life” or more specifically the lichen. This book—through words and actual pictures (which, as Cara Dees puts it, could be a “new form of punctuation”), has not only whetted further curiosity and wonder about lichen, beyond how introductory science courses would have it, but it’s also made me confront my own city-centric worldview and skepticism of words “of nature” to actually get me closer to nature than other linguistic registers can. Hillman is generous enough to reach out to the skeptic:
but the humans love beauty & can be released from
their positions because so many have doubts about
doubts about what is called the natural world, far below, (165)
One of the ways Hillman is able to break down my resistances to nature poetry (she’s been retro-actively termed an “eco-poet” for whatever that’s worth, though Hillman prefers poets who are willing to “abandon their camps & are burning the maps to stay warm” 35) is due to her ingenuous milking of the fact that “lichen” (in America, if not necessarily in the U.K.) sounds like “liken.” Indeed, throughout Extra Hidden Life, lichen is being likened, whether it’s to punctuation & typography (as in “fringe lichen with tilde-like edges,” 15) or to simile & metaphor themselves (“Ruffle lichen/ spreading near the lake like similes” (“Day 2,” 57), not to mention that “like’ also means being attracted to. Beyond a merely comic pun, this cosmic phonetic resemblance suggests a way out of logocentric, dualistic metaphysics that officially and subliminally define our epoch.
While it would be reductive to say that, for Hillman, “lichen is a metaphor for metaphor” or “metaphor is a metaphor for lichen,” certainly such likening, such kindship, is near the core of Brenda’s vision in this book, in which the field work—the (re)search—of looking for lichen is one & the same with looking for something (in the human realm) to liken it to.….It’s almost as if she can’t write about actual physical lichens without also writing about metaphor & simile, as if to balance the 20th century modernist-materialist “no ideas but in things” dictate with a complementary “no things but in ideas” or feelings, or souls, as her image of the microbes on the photo of microbes (“So Bacteria Have Their Thunder,” 18) goes beyond any simple transparent 1=1 referent correspondence for the sake of transference, synergy, and passing (psychic) energy across.
Some people think lichen looks dead but it is alive in its
dismantling. Some call it moss. It doesn’t matter what you call
it. Anything so radical & ordinary stands for something (56)
To say, in prose, however, that lichen is likened to metaphor may be of no help if we rely on standard dictionary (or Poetics 101) definitions of what metaphor does, in which metaphor is a “rhetorical effect” that “directly refers to one thing by naming another.” Such definitions may reduce it to a symbol on a one-way street, and may ignore the more suggestive and mysterious (or seemingly contradictory) evocations of its etymology: to carry over or across, to transfer, to bear. “Meta” means “after” or “beyond,” (and connotationally is sometimes imagined as “above”)—and today is often used as “about” (meta-data, meta-cognitive, meta-emotion), but also “beside, with, among,” and Hillman explores & challenges all these associations in this book.
For Hillman, sharing C.D. Wright’s belief in “words/ as action not contingency,” (119) metaphor can be, among other things, “a form of action” (55) and, at its most powerful, makes “a human & nonhuman meaning…./ (not sure what nonhuman meaning means)” (55), but with the proviso that metaphor cannot really be a metaphor if it’s only a metaphor, that it must sometimes lose consciousness of itself as metaphor to do its work, that metaphors can become their opposite, and there’s a danger in that, yet ultimately there’s a sense that metaphor both is and isn’t a metaphor for the harmony between the human and the non-human that is necessary for there to be harmony among humans.
Lichen is also personified throughout this collection, even when they’re unlikened to simile: “Lichens are calmer than people/ and similes calmer than that” (68). Often they’re pictured as labor, with clear working class solidarity. In “Triple Moments of Light & Industry,” a prose-poem ode to “tiny slave bacteria (in an oil refinery) changing sulfides, ammonia, hydrocarbons & phenol into levels of toxins the mixture can tolerate,” she writes “the bacteria do not experience hurt or the void, but their service is uneven” (45). On the other hand, in “Species Prepare to Exist After Money,” she writes:
Turns out bacteria communicate in color.
They warn each other in teal
or celadon and humans assign
meaning to this, saying they are distressed
or full of longing. (21)
Even the so-called hard sciences can’t entirely avoid affective language when writing about the sex-life of lichen. Yet, even before the human assignation of meaning, there’s a pre-meaning sense that their colors are warnings. More often Lichen are personified as listeners, whether it’s “Xanthomendoza/ growing real gold radar ears” (61), or Hypnogymnia with its “tubes & big ears listening in thin woods,/ an undercommon in the trees” (63). The photo Brenda took of the hypnogymnia, with its white tendons and tannish-brown belly against a crisp black backdrop is almost as beautiful as the sound of its name, which suggests both hypnotic and gymnastic. Occasionally, it speaks: On (or in) Day 3, “Lichen says/ accept what is then break it down” (58).
Another way metaphor-lichen works, or acts, in the book’s central “Metaphor & Simile” sequence, to bring a “human meaning” and “nonhuman meaning” together, is the brilliant way Hillman extends the basic “love is a rose” metaphor to liken the destructive/healing powers of lichen to the heroic figures of Rosa Parks and Roza Luxemburg, as well as living protestors. Regardless of whether it’s accurate to say metaphors & lichen “stand for something,” these women are certainly standing for, or better, embodiments, of love & justice (as well as serenity-in-grief) “as lichen reads the stone, as Rosa rides the bus….” (64) And it may stretch credibility to mention that Hillman also links these healing forces to “punctuation…. trying to help you along,” but such ruminations on, in, & through metaphor go beyond the traditional metaphysical conceit to sound the very depth of (our) being, emphasizing the possibilities for freedom, justice, “unknowing beauty” and harmony.
I get the feeling that the capaciousness of metaphor (or call it myth) allows Hillman to find a way to integrate the two main ethical social roles the (lower case) “i” enacts in this book: the political activist and the poet, not that they have to be opposed to each other, tough it’s so easy to forget when tangled up in the confines of specialized definitions of the human that can’t cross over to the nonhuman to save it from the inhuman.
Yet, none of this comes close to answering Forrest Gander’s question: ….“What is the connection between the book’s many references to lichen and our “grief-stricken days?” After all, the book begins with a crisis and grief, a feeling that “humans were extra or already gone,” (3), and a need to forsake human company (13), and certainly this feeling of crisis—both public and private—explains why she uses this Judith Butler quote as one of her epigrams: “Can we perhaps find one of the sources of nonviolence in the capacity to grieve, to stay with the unbearable loss without converting it into destruction?”
Butler’s implied definition of grief poses an ethos somewhat similar to that implied by the ethical ideal of “negative capability” (if one may translate Keats’ “living in doubt” to “unbearable loss” and “irritable groping after certainties” to “converting it into destruction”), but of course such an ideal is easier said than done, unless (un)done over and over, or as Cara Dees puts it, “Hillman offers a response [to Butler], showing how grieving and living alongside the unbearable mirrors the struggle to save forests, animals, plants, and shores, democracy, and human life.”
In negotiating this ethical dilemma, Hillman is clearly aware that “a metaphor might make more trouble when it tries to be….the grief of history (78, ellipses hers), as she tells herself “don’t fuck it up/ and try harder.” (136), and this certainly leads her to try to provide an alternative to “ghostly word weapons” (39), the violence encoded in our ostensibly neutral language. On the other hand, she acknowledges, at a political protest: “It’s best to try no hitting first/ but each minute has a separate brain/ & if the cops start to hit, I’m no longer/ sure what I’ll do.” (42), and defends “unmedicated moody/ rage” (47).
As Hillman harmonizes, rather than attempt to synthesize, this ethical dialectic, she may agree with Butler’s (presumably rhetorical) question, but only by complicating Butler’s terms, to invest the word “destruction” itself with positive connotations. Thus, lichen is not only the “wife of decomposers” but also celebrated as “the figure of destruction” who “comes in many forms & lately wears veils that look like nettings or hashtags, Ramalina—a Kali figure of change & destruction” (73). Hillman has an acute ear for the moments or processes in which what may be termed “destruction” is actually more healing that what is being destroyed—-whether that be “progress” (59), and “economic growth” or the “ego” (as when Hillman writes, “Disperse the self,/ serenity & grief” ((66)), or who cannot be charmed by the portrayal of the spirit of C.D. Wright speaking from the grave, “I just wanted to poke holes in their egos/ sprinkle out the one big self,” 125), such destruction can be one with bacteria’s “power for changing not-life into lives…”’ (22, title poem).
For the most part Hillman does not “tax ye elements with unkindness”—and readers looking for poems about the arbitrary cruelty of natural forces are likely to be disappointed, but neither is nature presented as benign. The destructive decompositions of lichen, or simile and metaphor, can be useful tools in an ethical process of unknowing. One of the best compliments Hillman can say in her praise of the late C.D. Wright is: “She helped you unknow/The half true (14). Elsewhere she celebrates “unknowing beauty among/ the brutal days” (55), as if a poetry reading is most profoundly a communal ritual of unknowing (for both author, reader, and listener). “Day 4,” starts with:
, In the afternoon of our unknowing
, we were outside. So were
, other organisms: flies, dust,
, punctuation. It’s impossible to know
how to live….(60)
Elsewhere, the unknowing of beauty (and the beauty of unknowing) is linked to the power of simile through the suffering of doubt: “a simile sets up space for you to doubt/ ever getting past the suffering… Rilke” (Day 2).
can be read several ways, one of which can be a critique of Rilke, especially if we notice only 3 rather than 4 dots in the ellipses. Still, the ellipses suggest the thought is completed before the intrusion of Rilke, and this could seem like a despairing statement did not the line break between “Doubt’ and “ever” suggest that each line could also be its own unit. The first line suggests that setting up “space for you to doubt” may actually be one of the most profound functions of simile and metaphor. Recursively, you may even doubt whether there’s really space to doubt in, and “ever getting past the suffering” is not the same as despair, but rather a characterization of the daily (Sisyphusian) task to peel away the daily unbearable suffering of waking “among the (atrocities of the) days,” without being escapist.
Even more specifically, in Day 14, she writes: “a simile sets up gaps for you/ to doubt when there is disagreement”
This suggests “we might agree more than I think we agree” as well as “doubting can save us from disagreements becoming destructive,” and since most of us are born into a world of disagreements, or, as she puts it elsewhere,” a “breaking at the start of time” (12), this doubting can be very similar to the “love that/ broke the breaking…” (12) or doubt becomes more similar to wonder, and partaking in creation, than it does hope. And, in this connection, in perhaps one of the most poignant moments of lyric clarity (or confession), near the end of the book, Hillman writes:
Those who had tried
too often walked
with those who had yet to try
as doubt can walk beside radical hope. (157)
As an older person whose professional and social life is largely among the young, I can relate to this beautiful defense of the much maligned millennials; as in Blake, radical skepticism, if taken to its “logical conclusion” even, has to defeat itself….like those doubting their doubts about the so-called natural world….which is one with the spiritual….as well as the erotic. While Craig MorganTeicher calls Hillman’s book, “one uneasy answer,” at times its healing power feels more like easy questions, listening, waiting for our response. & I like the way it’s able to move through grief and guilt, to embrace moments in which humans “didn’t not feel joy” (153) without falling into the “false praise or bullshit” of commodifying joy.
Nor is it mere wordplay to suggest to the reader that next time you go to a poetry reading, picture a reader as lichen and his/her book as stone, or picture the stone as the reader, and yourself as the listening lichen. The blank page could be stone and the writing lichen, or the worded page could be stone and the reading lichen, or the speaker may be lichen and the spirit of a dead friend can be live oak (139). Wood speaks as paper (136), and passages like “larval forms of the obtuse/…love wood as I love paper/ sexy sexy sexy abstract beauty….” (140) make it clear that for Hillman the abstract is always already grounded; lichen is an (abstract) artist, or even the unacknowledged legislators of the world, who listen.
Chris Stroffolino is the author of 5 full length books of poetry, most recently “Drinking From What I Once Wore: Recent & Selected Poems, 1995-2017” (Crisis Chronicles) and “Slumming It In White Culture” (Vendetta Books), as well as 2 books of essays of literary and culture crit., and a memoir. He currently lives in Oakland, California and teaches at Laney College.