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Poet's Choice

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By Mary Karr
Sunday, November 2, 2008

At the risk of oversimplification, there's a schism in American poetics: writers who live in the world (so-called lived experience) vs. writers who live by the word. Of course, the greatest poets master both realms. Ever read a poem that makes you feel dumb? It's probably by a word-centric writer. Ever face tediously prosaic language wondering what in hell makes it poetry? It's probably by a world-peddler.

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I first associated Brenda Hillman's work with word-centric poetry -- postmodern linguistic experiments that often verge (for me) on the impenetrable. But like Wallace Stevens, Hillman imports enough real-life experience to draw me in. With "Partita for Sparrows," she makes the poignant act of burying dead sparrows in Europe embody the persistence in that continent -- scarred by tyranny -- of dangerous class hierarchies that foment unrest. Presume that her choices aren't haphazard and try to unpack each detail. You'll enter a mythic landscape fresh with meaning:

We bury the sparrows of Europe

with found instruments,

their breasts light as an ounce of tea

where we had seen them off the path,

their twin speeds of shyness and notched wings

near the pawnbroker's house by the canal,

in average neighborhoods of the resisters,

or in markets of princely delphinium and flax,

flying from awnings at unmarked rates

to fetch crumbs from our table half-spinning

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