The Poetry of David Hilton

This past April, Coffee House Press brought out David Hilton's final book, Living Will. Hilton died in 2005 at age 67. In the book's afterword, Dave Clewell aptly calls Hilton "a spiritual grandson of Whitman and a son of the good Dr. Williams." Hilton's poetry brings to mind some of Williams' most telling statements about the effort of the poet, such as this from Autobiograpy: "The thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses." It's a most poignant perception. We spend very little time writing poetry: a proof of the impossibility, with "virtual" creating the tight aperture that makes it possible. Hilton wrote as if he believed that experience signifies something, as if it holds a latent message. hilton.jpgWCW said the same thing in his essay "The Practice": "We catch a glimpse of something from time to time, which shows us that a presence has just brushed past us, some rare thing."

But again, it's the lifting that creates the difficulty. For most of WCW's progeny, "No ideas but in things" meant "No ideas at all," the equivalent of "No heavy lifting." Andrei Codrescu got it right about Hilton when he called him "a nostalgist who fights for actuality." Hilton's fight included a particularity of word-choice and phrase-making, useful narrative habits and, often, humor. "An artist must express his personality," wrote WCW, and then often suppressed his own. The canny personal tone is what made Smoke of My Own Breath (Garlic Press, 2001) my favorite of Hilton's books. Here's the first stanza of "The Piano":

No one played it but me, alone
in the fringed, brocaded living room,
pounding out the distances between
the black bones and the white,
between Grandpa's moans that shook
and shuddered down the stairs
and his trapped cries that broke
and fell like that small bird, the mud-
molded, shadow-stunned thing that had seen
in the half-open attic window
an endless gray sky.

What "lifts" this memory and the rest of the book from nostalgia to art is the mystery -- not of the scene, but of the teller who becomes visible through selection. The actuality he fights for is the telling, not the action or figures in the scene. It seems that too much reliance on -- too much affection for -- things "under the direct scrutiny of the senses" (or memory) can ruin a poem, or at least make it dull -- a poem that asks for credit to be reflected on its sentiment or its descriptiveness alone. Hilton met that challenge head-on for decades.

Living Will is a sacramental book, a weightier mindfulness, elegaic. Hilton was always a chummy story-teller, a lover of the odd, faithful to what he had seen and fearless to say it -- and his lines were usually short, his diction and syntax plain. I'm taken by the more elaborate sound of language in Living Will and how it is perfectly tuned and shaped to the materials and circumstance of his later life. Here's a sampling from "November Burial," a 55-line poem about the thriving and demise of a wild zucchini:

This morning I was moved toward you.
You were gray, greenlight gone
from dried veins, great leaves shrunken.
I thought of my grandma's transparent cheeks
in the casket. I tried
to lift up your body in one piece
but it turned to bonemeal everywhere I touched,
hollows released an arid smoke
past the sweetness of decay.

He pushes the language further in "Salcombe Ramble," a long poem about a long walk:

And suddenly through shredding mist
a glistening meadow of mud appeared.
Then -- the moment landmarks lustered

and dissolved, Striding Man's fingerpost
tempting us tamely inland,
the true way verring from our mind --

a shingly ford surfaced for us. Slimy
tide-weeds lay across the inlet's gleam,
and we skated its slick to find our climb.

Reflective, celebratory, precise, devotional, Living Will is alive with end-of-life. Gratitude to Joanne Hilton, Warren Woessner (who wrote the introduction), Dave Clewell and Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press for bringing out this book.