Poetry Sunday: “En Route to Bolinas, A Rose,” by Brenda Hillman

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This week’s poem is a lyric, capturing a moment in time that is an amalgam of experience, thought, and memory provoked by that experience. What occasioned the poem is a rose glimpsed on the way (“En Route”) to Bolinas, a small, picturesque coastal town in West Marin in Northern California. That “en route” captures an important aspect of a poem that takes place in flow, in the medias res not of action but of the mercurial musings of a human mind.

The rose is an active image, described by means of the participial phrase “twisting on a gate.” Also, called “-ing” verbs, participles are verb forms that convey continuing action and sometimes function like adjectives to modify nouns. Writers like using participles because they tend to convey more power and action than any adjective could. We have already seen in this column that details are more powerfully shown through action than they can be told with description, and replacing adjectives with participles is one way to accomplish this. Compare “a crooked rose” with “a rose twisting” and you will see the difference a verb form makes. Also contributing to the feeling of immediacy is that the participle, like the entire first stanza of the poem, is in present tense. A rose “twisted” over a gate feels less instant and strong than one still in the act of “twisting,” and it also has less agency. In “twisting” we sense intentioned, tortured movement, tension, and a powerful life force in struggle with the inanimate gate

This poem has the vibrancy and freshness of a watercolor, with the first stanza giving us images seen on the fly, as from the window of a car. More alive than a photo, a watercolor could be said to be the visual equivalent of a lyric poem, with the artist working as fast as possible to fix the image before the paint dries. Water colorists do not tend to go back and revise their paintings; I am not sure it is even technically possible to do so. Instead, they create successive drafts until they get one that feels right. Poems that have been labored over, worked and reworked like oil paintings have their own kind of beauty, but it is different from the beauty in today’s poem.

What techniques does Hillman use to communicate these qualities of freshness, vigor, and delicacy? One is the way we enter the poem, an all-at-once slide from the title right into the first line. Another is the poem’s form on the page, spare and brief, with lots of white space and short lines indented at irregular intervals in a way that visually re-creates the action of a twining rose and a meandering mind. Another is the poem’s eschewal of capitalization and of conventional rules of grammar and syntax. The first fifteen lines end with a period and technically make a complete sentence, but not one that follows the rules of logic or would be easy (or perhaps even possible) to diagram. The remainder of the poem (beginning with the injunction to “Hop over the stream”) makes up its own second sentence. The point for now is that although it seems to follow the regular rules of punctuation, the poem resists being read in a conventional way. As we will see below, the poem resists the logic of linear narrative and instead frees itself to follow the quicksilver musings of an exquisitely sensitive and inquisitive mind.

We see this from the start, when the poet begins by describing a rose and turns right away to trying to name it and in the same instant rejects that naming, “not eglantine.” The word is italicized in the poem for emphasis—to make us focus on the word qua word and perhaps to notice its archaic quality—and not because the rules of language usage demand it. The more I look at “eglantine,” the stranger it becomes to me, an activity that foreshadows what will happen later in the poem. Distracted from the actual rose by the word she uses to try to name it, the speaker spends some time considering how to pronounce eglantine’s last syllable, an inquiry quickly abandoned for the next thought: “Keats is our valentine.” That seems like a non sequitur, but I can think of at least two ways it follows from what has gone before: eglantine is an archaic word for sweetbrier and one we could easily imagine Keats using in a poem, and also, “eglantine” rhymes with “valentine.” Progressing a poem by associating similar sounds is a time-honored practice, as is the kind of associative thinking that allows the speaker to think of her cat named Keats after the name of the poet has occurred to her. In those italics and in the question about how eglantine is pronounced, we sense the speaker’s delight in the word “eglantine.” In four short lines, we are made aware not just of the event that likely occasioned the poem—seeing the rose—but also of the speaker’s primary means of engaging with and focusing on the experience, through the lens of language.

The movement we are seeing here is largely associative, but associative thinking that moves by leaps instead of stepwise in logical increments, and it lays the groundwork for movement that will become more dissociative as the poem progresses down the page. The speaker flits from subject to subject like a butterfly in a field of milkweed, sometimes alighting here, sometimes there, and if according to a pattern, it is a mysterious one. It’s how human thought works and how life unfolds, and in that sense is much more “alive” than the after-the-thought ordering of human experience we tend to experience in conventional narrative.

“Just past the bridge” is a touchstone that reminds us that we are still on a journey with the speaker and traveling through a real landscape. Look what happens next: “just past the bridge, the soul / flies through when juncos pass.” But for that comma, we might think the soul is flying through the bridge. The line break encourages us to think this but the comma forbids it, so we have here another reenactment of the struggle first introduced by “twisting.” For me, the two lines just quoted are the most difficult in what is already a challenging poem. I cannot make sense of the phrase “the soul flies through when juncos pass” in the context of the larger stanza, but when I consider it alone, I find it delightful and true. Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like when a flock of birds pass, like the soul is flying through. The syntax here is compressed and twisted, twining back on itself in ways that make it difficult to parse, but we can say that the action of the soul flying through is modified by being compared to (or “like”) “action in a Coen Brothers film.”

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  • Susan Gunter June 26, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    This is a thoughtful analysis that extends the poem’s reach without detracting from its impact. I loved the comparison to watercolor so, though it is possible to make some revisions to a watercolor painting through a technique called “lifting.” The subtle shading in the poem makes me think of the way colors wash into other colors, as they do in a rose.