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

Action in a Coen Brothers film conjures ideas of disjunction, surprise, mystery, and the Blue Velvet menace that lurks beneath the everyday. Things are not what they seem, and we are jolted out of muted, everyday perception into something much more profound. The reference also prepares the ground for the poem’s next leap, the most disjunctive by far, into “short grasses grow crisp & cry out.” This line reminds me very much of a late poem by Donald Justice, “Psalm and Lament,” and the work both it and today’s poem do to communicate the essential agony and cruelty of what might otherwise appear an indifferent universe. In “Psalm & Lament,” it is the lawn chairs that convey the speaker’s sad, mute hopelessness. Here, it is the grass that is vested with human suffering.

“Short grasses” may just be another thing the speaker sees on her journey, but what happens next is surreal. The grasses “crisp” and they “cry out.” What is happening in this line? To me it is the parting of the veil, the brief and terrible glimpse into the eternal that sometimes happens in the course of ordinary life. In a flash the grass goes from living to dead, burned in the hot sun. (Once again, this reminds me of the terrible yellow grass in Justice’s poem.) This is what happens every June in northern California, the overnight transformation of our foothills from emerald to gold. Here, though, the alchemy is menacing. “Crisps” suggests burning and desiccation and “cry out” sounds, well, painful. The menace communicated here prepares us for the last line of the stanza, the bleak “we are so close to chaos then.” Notice how the power of that line is magnified by its sounds, the consonance of “close” and “chaos” and the near rhyme of “chaos” and “close.”

The semicolon at the end of stanza 1 dictates a pause, but a shorter pause than would have been indicated by a period, another device keeping the poem in flow. The disjunction at the end of stanza 1 and the white space preceding stanza 2 lays the groundwork for a seismic shift. Instead of being in the moment noticing the passing landscape, we find ourselves in a memory, that of guests leaving a luncheon and “murmuring goodbyes.” We know from the tense of “lingered” that this event took place in the past, quite possibly the event the speaker is en route from. That “gentle lunch” stands in sharp, civilized contrast to the precipice of chaos that closed the first stanza. How did we get to that memory? One explanation is psychological, the speaker’s mind recoiling from fearful objects and retreating to a place of safety. Or perhaps it is just the mind’s tendency to think in opposites.

Look at the differences in the two stanzas. The first is wholly in present tense and makes much use of participles that communicate continuing action. Stanza 2 opens in past tense before returning to participial action (waiting) and then switches to something even more immediate: injunction and direct address. Stanza 1 is populated with images from nature, Stanza 2 is full of people and their ghosts. Besides the luncheon guests, there is at least one other person in the poem, the “you” implied in “your mother’s spirit,” and I assume that “you” to be the speaker’s beloved. The mother’s spirit looking down makes the speaker think next of a coyote. We can read it as an appositive suggesting that the coyote is the mother’s spirit, or we can simply assume that the mother’s spirit conjured for the speaker the idea of another spirit animal. What matters is that we are seeing in this totemic creature an interaction between man and nature and the worlds of flesh and spirit.

The next image, that of the coyote “—waiting—near the hen” revives the menace we felt from the burned and weeping grass, and we know that hen is doomed. The idea of a coyote as spirit animal is reinforced by what comes next, my favorite line in the poem: “A shaman with a pollen glance.” How I love those last two words! Their yoking is unexpected and shows the power of nouns (here, “pollen”) used to modify other nouns. I also like the sonic marriage of “shaman” and “pollen” in a line where sound meets sense to delight us with its originality and accuracy.

Here in line 15 is where the poem, after many detours and across the divide of a stanza break, arrives at the end of its first sentence. Afterward the mode changes from narration and description to direct address and injunction. “Hop over the stream in your boots,” the speaker says. That modal change and the whimsical connotations of “hop” signal that the moments of transcendence and mystery have passed. We are back in the everyday, maybe even back home and at or near the end of the journey this poem represents. The poem ends on a line of spoken dialogue, an everyday kind of thing one person might say to another, but also something that communicates life and hope.

For those of us living in northern California and coming out of six long years of drought, the image of full waters brimming with salmon can bring only joy and relief, the very opposite of the image of burned grass in the first stanza. I especially enjoyed the idea of not having “to lift / the salmon from the stream this year.” In wet years, it’s fun to watch the salmon swimming upstream to spawn, but during drought our streams dwindle to a trickle between puddles in which fish are marooned and die. I have a vivid memory of kneeling in a near-dry creek bed in Mill Valley to watch fish literally backflipping themselves from puddle to puddle, and of teaching my three-year-old how to help them along their arduous way. The poem ends somewhere else, though, in a stream where the salmon can make their own way; it ends in overflow and abundance. Or rather it does not end but goes on and on, because an em dash, not a period, closes out the poem’s last line.

Another in the great tradition of “On the Road” and Nature Poems, “En Route to Bolinas, A Rose” takes us on a journey that is spiritual as well as physical that leads us to the edge of a precipice, offering a glimpse into the darkness and mystery of the terrible eternal. That it does this by mimicking the action of human thought in a poem that feels light, vivid, and as fresh as a watercolor still on the easel to dry, is its genius.

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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.