Mysticpoetics: Writing the alchemical self in Brenda Hillman's poetry

Brenda Hillman in 1997.

Brenda Hillman’s poetry circumnavigates around the overarching interest of spirit, matter, and everything in between. Even though Hillman’s work is often uncategorizable, she works within a vein that combines traditional lyric as well as more experimental forms. In addition, she incorporates various theologies and esoteric philosophies in her writing. Hillman has said of herself, “I think of myself as a mystic in a practical way.”[1] Hillman blends cultural references, nature, and the spiritual with an open lyric form that leaves room for mystical experiences to occur on the page. Hillman’s poetry can be read as enacting an alchemical process where spirit is turned into matter and matter into spirit.

Hillman is often deemed “a school of one” because “her poems can maddeningly lurch from the sacred to the profane, from the most quotidian and anecdotal writing to passages of darkly brooding gravity.”[2] Yet despite her use of innovative form, she still identifies herself as a lyric poet: “I’ve never left the lyric behind. I’ve not only been influenced by lyric, I am a lyric poet.”[3]  Playing with lyric and innovation, Hillman sets aside all assumption of how poetry has been written previously to do something new. Through experiments with form, Hillman disrupts assumptions of what poetry is. She creates a sense of bafflement by juxtaposing ordinary events in her poems with the imaginative and mysterious. Fanny Howe calls this a poetics of “bewilderment,” where one composes in a state of wonder, awe, and disorientation.[4] A poetics of bewilderment can also be understood within the terms of what psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) describes as a way of uncovering true uniqueness: “If I want to understand an individual human being, I must lay aside all scientific knowledge of the average man and discard all theories in order to adopt a completely new and unprejudiced attitude.”[5] Hillman has a similar theory of composition: “The place where we make poetry is outside any familiar state. Poetry sort of makes us stranger so we can wake up in a place where everything hangs off the edges, creating itself.”[6]

Carl Jung and Brenda Hillman

Jung developed a model of the psyche with an organizing center known as the self: “The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness.”[7] His concept of the self was revolutionary because Jung claimed that humans carry an element of the divine within their psyches and that the goal of one’s life should be the search for selfhood, which is known as the process of individuation:

Individuation means becoming an “in-dividual,” and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one's own self.  We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization.”[8]

Jung’s conception of self-knowledge, however, is not to be understood in a rational sense, but rather in a divine sense — discovering and integrating the spiritual into one’s life. This union can bring about a more fulfilling communion with the larger world. His model includes various stages in which a person gains specific knowledge about one’s soul; at the center of this inner work is the ongoing formulation of a unique self and creating a relationship with that self, and this lifelong process may never be entirely realized. Jeff Raff, a contemporary Jungian analyst, reminds us that “the formation of the self is never fully complete, for there always remains material not yet integrated into (or harmonized by) the center.”[9]

Jung provided a map for the psyche by categorizing it into parts, with the ego as the center of consciousness and the self as the center of personality which includes both conscious (the ego) and unconscious impulses. Jung’s unconscious consists of both a personal level or “contents that … lost their intensity and were forgotten”[10] and a collective level or “the ancestral heritage of possibilities of representation … common to all men, and perhaps even to all animals, [that] is the true basis of the individual psyche.” The collective unconscious includes archetypes — images or figures — that “give form to countless typical experiences of our ancestors. They are, so to speak, the psychic residua of innumerable experiences of the same type.”[11] Jung used symbols and images to interpret dreams, yet he hypothesized that there was more to the unconscious than the personal. He was often deemed a mystic by his contemporaries because his archetypal theory held elements that could never be empirically explained, and he relied upon various disciplines such as mythology, religion, and alchemy to exemplify his theories:

I noticed to my amazement that European and American men and women coming to me for psychological advice were producing in their dreams and fantasies symbols similar to, and often identical with, the symbols found in the mystery religions of antiquity, in mythology, folklore, fairytales, and the apparently meaningless formulations of such esoteric cults as alchemy …[12]

Just as Jung “found parallels to his psychic perspective in the lineage of alchemy and Gnosticism” and “consistently referred to and quoted from older religious traditions to shed light on the workings of the unconscious,”[13] Brenda Hillman uses Gnostic and alchemical language in her writing.

As Hillman has clearly identified herself as a lyric poet, let’s examine this term more in depth. A lyric implies a rhythmically interesting line in a poem that could be sung; this is often where the emotive function plays a larger role. In addition, the lyric frequently refers to a category of poetic literature representational of music in its sound patterns which are characterized by subjectivity and sensuality of expression — usually in a highly enthusiastic and exuberant way. As indicated in Jung’s model of the psyche, if the ego is the center of consciousness, then in order to create a self, it must be in relationship with both the personal and the collective unconscious. This is how I see the Jungian model working in a poetic model of a self: the words on the page represent the ego or consciousness, the personal anecdotes represent the personal unconscious, and the lyric form represents the collective unconscious. Hillman uses a lyric form when she conjures mysterious experiences, and I will present specific examples of this form through a close reading of her poetry.

Hillman’s poetry has been described as conveying “the necessity of otherness, to write, to be the amanuensis of the visible world, joined with the necessity of inclusiveness, of participation.”[14] Hillman uses the lyric to bring out ecstatic insight from human experience. In the necessary disorientation one feels when creating a poem, Fanny Howe expands the definition of the lyric as “searching for something that can’t be found. It is an air that blows and buoys and settles. It says, ‘Not this, not this,’ instead of, ‘I have it.’”[15] This searching is continual in Hillman’s poetry. The lyric recurs, but Hillman simultaneously redefines selfhood by introducing new forms into her poems as she explains: “The idea of knowledge in process does have to do with the experiments and explorations of writing, I think, and not just arriving at a spiritual center.”[16] Jung might call this a search for self-knowledge. By wavering between two elements or approaches, “not this, not this”[17] separations can dissolve, activating a process of individuation, the aim of which is “nothing less than to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona on the one hand, and of the suggestive power of primordial images on the other.”[18]

Through the arc of Hillman’s poetry collections, one can see that she “has in recent years written poems that question the continuity and cohesiveness of what we think of as the self.”[19] Hillman’s sense of the “I” constantly shifts and expands, making her work an exciting place to trace the self’s alchemical development.

The alchemical self

In the most literal terms, alchemy is known as the medieval philosophy concerned with the chemical transformation of metal into gold. However, often the “gold” is of a more spiritual nature. In alchemy, various sequences are associated with different stages of transformation. First, the alchemists must find a substance they believe contains the prima materia[20] that after losing its form can go back to its primal state. This stage is known as mortificatio or the nigredo, in which the material undergoes an alarmingly dramatic breakdown. Since this matter loses its original form, it is often reduced to liquid (solutio) or formlessness. The alchemist then introduces the chaotic liquid substance to sulfur, which creates a new form. Thus, a continual process of separation (separatio) and joining (coniunctio) of various states of matter and substances takes place, sometimes with violent reactions and sometimes with a balanced reaction that produces a solid and organized matter. This organized matter is referred to the philosopher’s stone.[21]

Fire or Calcinatio is another key symbol in alchemy, which reduces a substance to ash in a type of purification process. Fire also resulted in separation, “splitting the ash or body of the material from the spirit, which rose to the top of the alchemical vessel as vapor.”[22] In alchemy, the separation and reunification process continues until the ultimate goal of gold (either spiritual or physical) is produced. As the alchemists experienced, this process of turning metal into gold often ended in failure, but the attempts to transform matter did result in self-knowledge. We can also see how this process represents a spiritual or psychological transformation, as Jung pointed out with his alchemical model.

Pieter Breughel (1525-1569), The Alchemist, 1558.

Jung did much research on alchemy and was profoundly interested in the work of sixteenth-century alchemist Gerald Dorn. Jung interpreted the three stages of what Dorn called “The Great Work” of alchemy as three stages in the constitution of the self. Jung’s alchemical model included a first, second, and third coniunctio, or three levels at which opposites unite and “since the self is the union of opposites, each stage corresponds to a different level of self-formation.”[23] However, one should realize that the process of alchemy is not linear: “although there is sequence, there is also simultaneity, regression, and chaos.”[24] The alchemical process, and often the various coniunctios, are repeated many times before the self moves into the next stage of development. It is important to keep this in mind in relation to Hillman’s body of work.

and mortificatio

The alchemical process in Hillman’s work begins with Fortress.[25] This volume presents the reader with the beginning of a separation process in which opposites emerge in binaries of sorrow/joy, beauty/pain, love/loss, dark/light, and newness/death, which lead to a breakdown of material (Hillman’s life as she knows it) into the mortificatio stage of alchemy. Separation seeps through the book’s elegiac tone: “In the beautiful void / over the lighted wing, / those ice children seem alive, moving / with no purpose but to be separate” (8); “I see the silk threads / snails put upon the porch / and think how simply / all things leave themselves behind” (43). The mortificatio or nigredo stage of alchemy is often associated with a dark color, and in Fortress, the color gray emerges often: “the gray between decision” (3); “the large, cement-gray-suited woman” (5); “leaves that fall / in gray apostrophes” (56). This darkening world indicates decomposition, or a death. In alchemy, there must be a death before the material can go on to the next stage of joining, or coniunctio.

Fortress exemplifies strength in its title, yet its content addresses the experience of disintegration. Mention of dreams, nature, and the other are woven throughout the poems to create a mysterious presence which often questions the origins of things: “Does a poem pre-exist / as dawn pre-exists” (69), and “Sometimes you are known completely / by seeing, known as if by a secret companion: / eyes pressed from the base of an incline / into the depths of your perilous being” (58).

In Jung’s alchemical model, the first coniunctio takes place in the unconscious: “the first union begins when the ego discovers the reality of the unconscious and makes an effort to pay attention to it …”[26] The ego begins to recognize and develop a relationship with an “other,” or the unconscious. Hillman juxtaposes her experience of divorce with strong, declarative lines throughout the book: “What we want is simply past our reach” (Fortress, 22); “You could reach inside and make it work” (46); and “The music is the music of failed expectation” (65). The authority in these succinct sentences balances against her personal experience of loss and creates recognition of the “other.” Fortress provides a glimpse into individual experience through a lyricism that may be filled with wonder or sorrow: “They’ve taken the larynx out of the dog / so he won’t disturb the neighborhood. / But he still opens his soundless mouth, loving his own // subjective barking” (35). These lines evoke grief, yet there are moments of amazement found elsewhere: “The great hurt hangs on for a while, / and then reveals the maps … / of a true self no less mysterious” (57). It is in these moments of lyric bewilderment that the conscious ego reaches toward a symbolic death in order to move out of the mortificatio stage to a coniunctio with the unconscious or mysterious: “I don’t care that my body / will die, for it has not known / its proper freedom” (69).

Death Tractates
, Bright Existence, and the first coniunctio

Death Tractates[27] progresses into a splitting process as Hillman deals with the veil between worlds and attempts to find meaning in an experience of loss. The idea that the poem holds its own consciousness, “I had only to trace the pen / over the words; / the poem was already written” (32), is intertwined with a death: “that death did not subtract, it added something, / her death made me whole” (21). Death Tractates was written as an “interruption” to Bright Existence (1993), and the two books serve as companions to one another, representing the alchemical splitting processes of separation and integration. The question of formlessness in one collection of poems is answered with concreteness in the other. Bright Existence is filled with experiences of the quotidian: paying tolls at a toll booth, a hair caught in her new lover’s throat, even pulling lice from her daughter’s hair. No detail is too small or irrelevant. Through observation, Hillman records and makes sense of the transformation taking place in her life.

Death is a central theme in Death Tractates and Hillman asks the large spiritual question: “What is this so-called / death what is it” (31). In her exploration of loss, she investigates Gnostic philosophies, asking what comprises matter and spirit and what boundaries might constitute the border of a soul. Hillman searches for a trace of her lost mentor in four sections entitled “Calling Her,” “Writing Her,” “Losing Her,” and “Finding Her.” Often a Dickinsonian dash signifies the entrance or exit of a disembodied voice who addresses the speaker of the poem and answers questions that have been posed: “— You think about a poem too much” (11); “— Don’t you see? / It doesn’t matter what order you put them in” (33); “The choice was simply / whether to live in ‘memory’ and time / or outside —” (42). Lamenting inquiries continue throughout the text: “What if, despite your false calm, / your brokenness, your self-deception — / in fact, when you were most broken, / her heaven was you?” (35). This insistent questioning leads only to a place of paradox: “— You asked for the difference between life and death … / … and at the moment of your question, / you were handed, / like a black rose, the paradox —” (47).

In alchemical psychology, paradox is a place in which one must learn to dwell comfortably. The tension of opposites must be held during any coniunctio stage of alchemy and “the ego must be flexible and able to hold a middle position … consciousness must be balanced with its opposite — the unconscious.”[28] In Death Tractates, the “I” is distinct from the “you” and space serves as a place of paradox in the uniting of the opposites. Fanny Howe explains that space or emptiness: “teaches us to mistrust the location of the ‘I’ inside us, since it exists at a ‘zero point of orientation,’ being both at the source of the physical body and on its periphery where it, too, becomes empty.”[29]

The reader experiences this space as it surrounds the central poem located exactly in the middle of Death Tractates. Set apart by blank pages, “(untitled poem)” explores the idea that a poem has its own consciousness: “— So the poem is the story of the writing of itself” (25). In this line, Hillman enters the alchemical stage where “the ego carries the principle of consciousness into the darkness of the unconscious and this effects transformation.”[30] The poem continues as it speaks to the ego’s task in the first coniunctio or union:

So, put yourself in the way

 of the poem. It needed your willing

 impediment to be written …

 You had to be willing to let it through the sunshine

 error of your life,

 be willing not to finish it — (Death Tractates, 25)


As Hillman explains elsewhere, “It seems as if betweenness, ambiguity, or states of uncertainty are the sites for the most possibility.”[31]

And, just as the short, lyrical poems in Death Tractates strive for consciousness, the first poem in Bright Existence[32] echoes the process:

The world had been created to comprehend itself

 as matter: table, the torn

 veils of spiders … Even consciousness —

 missing my love —

 was matter, the metal box of a furnace.

 As the obligated flame, so burned my life … (1)

Hillman struggles with the idea of creation through “real” objects such as a table and the metal box of a furnace. She juxtaposes these with symbols of the imagined world like the “obligated flame.” The image of the furnace emerges here, so like the alchemical calcinatio or burning stage that purifies and also separates matter and spirit.

Bright Existence’s poems reflect a Gnostic belief, that the world was created as a site for the spiritual ones to come to know themselves. In “The Spell” Hillman writes: “This world is my twin / but I was not cut from the same cloth, I passed / through the shadow so I could be / amazed at it —” (32). In Jung’s alchemical model, during the first coniunctio the ego must become aware of the unconscious in order to move forward in self-formulation: “two as a symbol, and especially doubling or twinning, usually refers to a content within the unconscious that is ready to cross over into the conscious sphere.”[33] Hillman explores this idea through form and formlessness. Poems that consider the hardness of form: “trapped in somethingness, in those tiny mosaics with no blood” (Bright Existence, 30) are juxtaposed with poems that consider spirit: “because at the edge / of your becoming, something kept trying / to erase you” (57). Lines in the title poem “Bright Existence” demonstrate this first coniunctio clearly:

there should be more witnesses at the edges of the self

 where everything is both …

 the part that wasn’t ready

 stayed inside a little longer

 and the part that was ready to be something

 came forth — (96)

Here, the “part that wasn’t ready” and “the part that was ready to be something” signifies a reaching toward consciousness, a doubling, “where everything is both” and there must be recognition of the other for this union to occur.

Hillman ends Bright Existence with an image of the snake: “I found its skin of stretchy diamonds / and picked it up, so I could keep / one of the two selves …” (99). In Jungian thought, the snake is the symbol of transformation and often denotes the uroborus or the serpent eating its own tail — a symbol of union.

Loose Sugar
and alchemical ash

After these twin volumes, Hillman embarks on a study of alchemy and depression in Loose Sugar,[34] in which she attempts to transcend her dark experience. The series “blue codices” explores the mode of fragmentation. In this series, the “ash poems” are essentially fragments that fall to the bottom of the page, symbolic of alchemical ash from the furnace. The volume is structured in five dualistic sections entitled: “space/time,” “time/alchemy,” etc. mirroring the unresolved nature of the poems themselves. Things heat up: “Once you were immortal in the flame. / You were not the fire / but you were in the fire; —” (3). This image of the burning alchemical furnace is central to the process of alchemy, and just as alchemists hoped for success and often failed in their search for gold, Hillman too, having struggled with depression, uses the idea of alchemy as a way to transform her experience into a different material or as a way to see it as something outside herself. The ash poems become “the ash of depression from which your beauty of spirit will rise, if it doesn’t kill you first.”[35] So in this alchemical process of separating the ash from spirit, Hillman attempts to allow the spirit to break free from depression. This process is not easy and often contains periods of the nigredo, which include darkness and unknowing. 

During the second coniunctio of Jung’s alchemical model, the self takes on a life of its own and begins to function in its own right. The new self is represented by being held between the masculine and feminine. Both energies are needed for the second coniunctio to take place. In poetic processes, the writing of a poem can be seen as the act of writing the self, or searching for a relationship between the unknown (the blank page) and the known or perceived known (the word on the page). In Gnostic myth, this is specifically the search for a feminine wisdom: “Sophia (or wisdom) fell from the pleroma (or pure world), scattering divine sparks. The Archegenetor (or Demiourgos) — a secondary god — created humans to enslave these divine sparks in matter.”[36] Similarly, in Jungian theory, the unconscious represents the mystery of what is at the depths of uncertainty and is often denoted as a feminine principle.

The poem “The Spark” alludes to this kind of joining in the second coniunctio: “You who happened only once: / remember yourself as you are; // when he comes to you” (Loose Sugar, 5–6). The “you” is well established as a feminine presence at this stage in Hillman’s writing (in the progression of Death Tractates to Bright Existence to Loose Sugar). Thus, the line “when he comes to you” represents this masculine and feminine union in the formulation of the poetic self and “stands for the psychic totality.”[37]

and the second coniunctio

Cascadia explores the question of place which “takes us automatically to the problems of reality and the ideal.”[38] Unlike her previous books of poetry, carefully organized in separate sections, Cascadia is structured like a large striated landscape. Each poem is layered upon the next and the aforementioned feminine principle emerges throughout the book in poems such as “(blank page)” and “(interruption).”

Pietro Longhi, The Alchymist, 1661.

The poem “(blank page)” is precisely that: a page filled with whiteness. It is given a title in the table of contents, but no words are written on the page itself. Symbolically, the blank page can be seen as feminine, a space that is formless and undefined, yet contains multiple possibilities, indicating here that it holds open possibility like that required in the alchemical process of self-formulation. Also, Hillman notes that the blank page can be used as an in-between space: “The alchemists knew that the fallen thing can be retrieved … so the marginal voices exist at the side, apart from the lyric, with a lot of white in-between. Seemingly trivial detail offers itself easily to metaphoric space. The between is left blank and fertile.”[39] We can see this exemplified in the poem “Cascadia”:

Holiday Inn



one of those
     teeth bedspreads                 

In the search for the search

During the experiments with wheels

After the scripted caverns

When what had been attached

Was no longer attached

After choosing the type of building

In which no one has died

We recalled a land or condition

Whose shape was formal

Formality gave pleasure

A shadow’s shadow dragged it

Back to the sea of eyes[40]

Hillman explains that her “poetry and poetics began to evolve unexpectedly … The sense of the single ‘voice’ in poetry grew to include polyphonies, oddly collective dictations.”[41] By stretching the “I,” Hillman’s work expands from a lyric-narrative tradition to a more innovative mode. Hillman herself has noted, “The lyric … is also social … That much more stretchy sense of ‘I’ really interests me.”[42]

The reader sees this illustrated in Cascadia’s “(interruption)” as a “we” is called forth: “(enter: The ‘we’ —)” (6). This short fragment is enclosed in parentheses and is centered directly on the page, surrounded by white space. In Jung’s alchemical model, during the second coniunctio “the self progresses to such a degree that it takes on a life and reality of its own within the psyche. The self comes alive and begins to function in its own right.”[43] One also sees here the masculine and feminine union needed to contain the process. As those “above ground” in consciousness are transformed, the unconscious also undergoes a transformation, endowing the self with new energy. The parentheses of Hillman’s line signify a generative dewdrop and the “we” represents the second coniunctio in the alchemical process. A “we” of masculine and feminine unite as a new “we” of the self emerges. Hillman’s poetic self becomes polyphonic and this new “center strives to express itself”[44] more consciously in Cascadia through an inner and outer landscape.

Hillman’s “A Geology” plays with the idea that “place is a world and a word”[45] and crosses boundaries between the internal and external: “In the expiation of nature, we are required to / experience the dramatic narrative of matter … // This was set down in strata so you could know / what it felt like to have been earth” (Cascadia, 14). This poem is grounded with four words on each corner of the page to anchor it “so it wouldn’t float.”[46] The word “fault” is repeated three times on the last page of “A Geology” suggesting multiple meanings: mistakes, geologic fractures that cause movement in the earth’s crust, and/or human weakness. The fourth word “prevalent” on the bottom right corner of the page surprises the reader in its difference; it not only helps to anchor the poem, but also destabilizes it and opens its reader to the experience of the last line: “what it felt like to have been earth.”

In an alchemical process of separating and joining matter, substances can react to each other in a violent or balanced manner. When balanced, the substance can emerge as solid matter, or the philosopher’s stone. Cascadia is about landforms where “shifting internal geographies must be managed in relation to external ones.”[47] In alchemical terms, the violent reaction is the poem “written under various kinds of emotional pressure”[48] and the stone emerges as organized matter: “It took quiet / It took stone” (Cascadia, 74).

Lines from the poem “Before My Pencil” grapple with the idea of creating a world out of intense feeling. The poem investigates “the mannerism of the curve” of earth or the universe and finishes with the idea that it can “crawl among syllables,” creating itself by feeding on dead organic or spiritual matter to produce a “white fact.” In alchemy, as the substance continues to change, it reaches “an initial resting-place … called the first stone” where it regains form and has “the power to create silver from other metals” and is often “associated with white … referred to as the albedo.”[49] Similarly, this poem touches “the white fact,” Hillman reaching a resting place where she creates a solidified poetic self.

Pieces of Air in the Epic
: A gesture toward the third coniunctio

In Jung’s alchemical model, during the third coniunctio the individual self comes into union with the divine world that existed before matter and spirit were separated. The third coniunctio is rarely ever achieved except perhaps in death as “the individual self that has been formed comes into union with a level of reality that transcends it, with the divine world … the one world before spirit and matter were separated.”[50] This is the Gnostic world Hillman explores in much of her poetry, but about which she rarely arrives at a conclusion. The third coniunctio denotes the spiritual plane of the elements of air, wings, etc. and is represented by the sun, sky, and clouds. In Pieces of Air in the Epic, Hillman explores this elemental world as she “tackles the large metaphysical questions” and “opens up the line and the page’s horizon to express the apocalyptic fears of our ‘epoch.’”[51] The poetic self enacts a new way of seeing: “I looked below / the air behind the paintings … / / I made my eyes pointy to look at air in / corners.”[52] The poem “Street Corner” invokes the one world that will ultimately transcend this individual self: “There was an angle / where I went for / centuries not as a / self or feature but / exhaled as a knowing” (3).

Other inquiries on exhalation/breath continue in “Platonic Oxygen” as the poet asks, “What is thought Is it breath / Were you breath” (76). The formlessness of the unknown transforms the solid matter of Cascadia into air: “Can we remake elements” (29) Hillman asks in “6 Components from Aristotle.” These meditations bring one closer to the elemental world, although “the danger of writing a book on air is that it might disappear at crucial moments.”[53] Hillman does not allow this to happen, as the poetic line remains grounded in the everyday: “Some // foolish soul has sold his entire / Liz Phair collection back to Amoeba; // Used jewel cases seem almost tender, / smothered-to-smithereens-type plastic …” (66).

Hillman continues to work with polyphony, and in the poem “Air in the Epic” the reader must jump between dense phrases to seemingly disconnected phrases surrounded by space. The lyric which operates in the right-hand margin can be read vertically while the dense poem on the left cannot:

You look outside the classroom where    construction trucks find little Troys. Dust
rises: part pagan, part looping. Try
to describe the world, you tell                    them — but what is a description? (8)

It is the space between the lyrical phrases that allows the mind to make causal connections that do not exist on the left. Hillman has carefully constructed each line so that it must interact; it must come together and join in an alchemical process while still suggesting gaps. The experimental form of “Air in the Epic” and “String Theory Sutra” produces a tension that reaches toward the transformative third coniunctio. The poem remains lyrical, yet continues to question the poetic self:

There are so many types of
“personal” in poetry. The “I” is                        a needle some find useful, though
the thread, of course is shadow.
In writing of experience or beauty,                 a cloth emerges as if made
from a twin existence … (80)

In Pieces of Air, the poem sees itself existing through the “writing of experience or beauty” as cloth made from a “twin existence” and one can see that Hillman’s poetic self has grown and transformed from the “selfhood” of her earlier books. Just as a person might function in life according to what she has consciously experienced, there is also an underlying unconscious myth or archetype at work that creates a life pattern and is expressed in a poem by what Howe calls “the strange Whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ … where error, errancy, and bewilderment … signal a story.”[54]

Through the breath, the image, and the lyric, the spiritual elements of the third coniunctio are at work in Pieces of Air: “… there’s a patient tap / tap tapping in the text … / where stars pass; / stars passed; stars pierced you —” (56). In “Clouds Near San Leandro” the poetic self inquires, “Aren’t there visions involving everything?” (67). Pieces of Air provides the reader with elated insight and urges one to question spirit and breath: “song outlasts poetry, words / are breath bricks to / support the guardless singing / project. We could have / meant song outlasts poetry” (4). Hillman has indeed found a way to separate matter from spirit and lift the words off the page in rapturous song.


One can clearly see the three coniunctios in Jung’s alchemical model represented in Hillman’s books of poetry, where inner and outer worlds resonate and come together on the page in a redefined notion of self that takes shape in the alchemical imagination of time and space, earth and air. Hillman identifies herself as a poet with Gnostic interests and has carved a niche for herself within an oeuvre of poets who are interested in the mysterious workings of the origins of things, or in Jungian terms, the unconscious. Hillman has even developed a “minifesto” which explains her interests:

= A poem is the rescue of a vanishing body.
= Poems embodying original technique make units smaller than the sentence serve both the sentence and the line. They help rethink the relationship between word, phrase, or sentence every time they make one of those things.[55]

To rescue the vanishing body, the mysticpoet writes words, phrases, or sentences on the page. In doing so, a new body — a poetic self — is developed. Hillman never abandons the lyric, although she often dwells in a place of unknowing with her experimentation of form: “Uncertainty is to be preferred. In those years, many of us found we could reinvent the lyric, however shattered it might be.”[56] The process of alchemical separation and joining repeats itself in Hillman’s poetry, and with an element-focused volume of poetry still to come — on fire — Hillman’s reader might wonder where she will take us next. My guess is that, like alchemy, she will take us through a continued process of refining the self through gnosis, just as the image of the burning salamander signals the return to the prima materia:

Some animals are warm in paradise;

your little alchemical salamander taricha tarosa
fresh from the being cycles, stumbles

over rocks in its lyric outfit —[57]

And with Brenda Hillman, there will always, always be a “lyric outfit” present.



1. Brenda Hillman, interview by J. Robert Lennon, Cornell University Podcast Audio, November 7, 2008.

2. David Wojahn, “Survivalist Selves,” Kenyon Review 20, no. 3 (1998).

3. Hillman, interview by Patricia Kirkpatrick and Emily August, Hamline University, “An Interview with Brenda Hillman,” March 17, 2006.

4. Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 15.

5. Carl G. Jung, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung — Civilization in Transition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, vol. 10 (New York, NY: Bollingen Foundation, 1964), ¶495.

6. Kevin Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” Poets and Writers (August 30, 2001), ¶8.

7. Jung, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung — Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, vol. 12 (New York, NY: Bollingen Foundation, 1953), ¶44.

8. Jung, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung – Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, trans. R. F. C. Hull, vol. 7 (New York, NY:  Bollingen Foundation, 1953), ¶266.

9. Jeffrey Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination (York Beach, ME: Nicolas-Hayes Inc., 2000), 12.

10. Jung, The Portable Jung, 38.

11. Jung, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung — The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, trans. R. F. C. Hull, vol. 15 (New York, NY: Bollingen Foundation, 1966), ¶127.

12. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 12, v.

13. Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, 4.

14. Brighde Mullins, “Introduction,” Readings in Contemporary Poetry: Brenda Hillman, by Dia Art Foundation, November 10, 1995.

15. Howe, The Wedding Dress, 21.

16. “An Interview with Brenda Hillman.”

17. Howe, The Wedding Dress, 21.

18. Jung, The Portable Jung, 123.

19. Devin Johnston, Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), 158.

20. “[P]rima materia was matter before it was formed, which the alchemists called ‘chaos’ among other things” (ibid., xxi).

21. “[T]he [philosopher’s] stone creates mystical experiences and ecstasy, and offers a door that leads to the celestial world. Their goal in the creation of the stone is direct encounter with divinity” (ibid., 219–20).

22. Ibid., xxii.

23. Ibid., 84.

24. J. Marvin Spiegelman, The Divine WABA: A Jungian Exploration of Spiritual Paths (Berwick, ME: Nicolas-Hays, Inc., 2003), 159.

25. Hillman, Fortress (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989).

26. Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, 85.

27. Hillman, Death Tractates (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1992).

28. Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, 106–7.

29. Howe, The Wedding Dress, 47.

30. Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, 106.

31. “An Interview with Brenda Hillman.”

32. Hillman, Bright Existence (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1993).

">33. Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, 89.

34. Brenda Hillman, Loose Sugar (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997).

35. Hillman, interview by J. Robert Lennon, Cornell University Podcast Audio, November 7, 2008.

f">[36. Johnston, Precipitations, 5–6.

37. Jung, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung — Aion, researches into the phenomenology of the self, trans. R. F. C. Hull, vol. 9ii (New York, NY: Bollingen Foundation, 1959), ¶426.

38. Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” ¶3.

39. Hillman, “Split, Spark and Space,” in The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Hillman (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 252.

40. Hillman, Cascadia (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 55.

41. Hillman, “Split, Spark and Space,” 246.

42. Hillman, interview by Sarah Rosenthal, “Our Very Greatest Human Thing Is Wild, an interview with Brenda Hillman,” Rain Taxi (Fall 2003), ¶28.

43. Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, 85.

44. Ibid., 12.

45. Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” ¶5.

46. Ibid., ¶ 7.

47. Ibid., ¶ 3.

48. Ibid.

49. Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, xxiii.

50. Ibid., 85.

51. Susan McCabe, “Platonic Oxygen: On Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic,” Denver Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2006): 65–66.

52. Hillman, Pieces of Air in the Epic (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), 58.

53. McCabe, “Platonic Oxygen: On Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic,” 71.

54. Howe, The Wedding Dress, 6.

55. Hillman, “Split, Spark, and Space,” 250.

56. Ibid., 248.

57. Hillman, Pieces of Air in the Epic, 67.