Monday’s Poem: ‘In High Desert Under the Drones,’ by Brenda Hillman

We are western creatures; we can stand for hours in the sun. We read
poetry near an Air Force base. Is poetry pointless? Maybe its points
are moving, as in a fire. The enlisted men can’t hear. Practice drones fly
over-head to photograph our signs; they look like hornets [Vespula] with
dangly legs dipping in rose circles with life grains. They photograph
shadows of the hills where coyotes’ eyes have stars. They could make
clouds of white writing, cilia, knitting, soul weaving, spine without
nerves, dentures of the west, volcano experiments, geometry weather
breath & salt. Young airmen entering the base stare from their Hondas;
they are lucky to have a job in an economy like this. The letters of this poem
are also lucky to have a job for they are insects & addicts & thieves.
Volcanic basalt recalls its rock star father. Creosote & sage, stubby taupe
leaves greet the rain. We hold our signs up. We’re all doing our jobs.
Trucks bring concrete for the landing strip they’ve just begun.

A cliff stands out in winter
Twin ravens drop fire from its eyes
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. Outside the base we see borax mines in the distance—the colors
of flesh, brown, black, peach, pink, bronze. We stand there as the young
airmen settle into their routine. The Gnostics noted it is difficult to travel
between spheres, you’ve had to memorize the secret names & the unnamable
haunts every aspect of your routine. The names grow heavier as
you carry them between the spheres.

Copyright © by Brenda Hillman.  Printed by permission of the author.

Photo by Janet Weil

Brenda Hillman is the author of eight collections of poetry, the most recent of which are Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), and Practical Water (2009).  She is Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at St. Mary’s College of California; she also works with CodePink, a women-initiated grassroots peace and social-justice group.

Arts & Academe poetry editor Lisa Russ Spaar notes:  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.  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 (or screen), 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 midway through the haibun, this first field of prose concludes and falls into white space in which the reader encounters an embedded color 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 kinds of cliffs, pitched against the winter landscape, with poetry, words, like black birds deploying “fire”ire, anger, protest, life forcefrom 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 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 everywherein 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 difficultyperhaps 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 namesthe naming of things, the noticing of things to be namedmay “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.

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