Lesson 3: Document Your Activism
In Practical Water, Brenda Hillman offers another kind of testimony, as well as political engagement, which she calls: “Reportorial Poetry, Trance and Activism.” As Hillman explains: “Reportorial poetics can be used to record detail with immediacy while one is doing an action and thinking about something else.” While Nowak and Wright consider disenfranchised or marginal groups, Hillman documents the center of U.S. military power creating poems out of her experience protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the anti-war group Code Pink as well as attending Congressional hearings in what Hillman calls “meditative states” or “trance.” The idea was to create a record “both collective and personal” as well as to “cross material boundaries” experiencing more than one reality at once. For example, in the poem “In a Senate Armed Services Hearing,” Hillman records: “the prickly intimate hairs…behind (the General’s) ears,” a fly circling the room, and a vision of the goddess Ishtar from Babylon “before they smashed her country.”
In doing so, Hillman provides another view of the war in stark contrast to Infantryman Ethan McCord’s description of carnage on the streets of New Baghdad—a view to the bureaucratic machinations that perpetuate combat. And from where we sit, as citizens and taxpayers, it is vital to pay attention to both. The Senate hearing is so similar to our board meetings, faculty meetings, and PTA meetings that the reader may struggle to reconcile its description with the number of civilian and military lives that hang on its outcomes. Thus Hillman’s desire to cross material boundaries—to be open to more than one reality at once—proves fruitful and offers an interesting counter to the testimony from those orchestrating the war, who seem to live divorced from the realities on the ever-expanding battlefield or the concerns of citizens who do not support these conflicts. Hillman writes:
…& I forget who asked what isn’t even in the same syntax of this language I’m trying to make no progress in, asked how the army would unoccupy, by north or south? A voice beside my insect ear said, these Senators all have lives: kids with stuff to do, folks with cancer, some secret shame…
Hillman lays bare the corruption of language in a phrase such as “unoccupy” demonstrating the stark difference between her intentions in a language in which she aspires to make “no progress” compared to the manipulation of language by a group of government officials whose words determine the fates of so many. The poem remembers “the soon-to-be-smashed goddess as in/Babylon” as well asks, “how do the dead breathe, Senator.” Yet, the poem also manages to “humanize” even the Senators who “all have lives.”
The poem “Dragonskin” provides another example of Hillman’s technique as she documents a salesman addressing a subcommittee about a new fabric used to make body armor. But the poem is literally punctuated by Hillman’s own reaction to the hearing including her notations that become represented textually as punctuation marks. She writes:
There’s a useful panic like the secret script sent between women in villages. Right now It’s a series of marks I’m making :::: :: :: during a subcommittee hearing
As the poem unfolds, Hillman not only provides quotes from and commentary on the hearing (“Has Dragonskin / been shown in tests to be more lightweight…”), but she records on her own note taking (“I write this in my notebook as DRAGONSKIN / slash slash slash slash”) describing her notations at one point as “fairly art-deco.” This provides a stunning reminder on the mediated nature of representation that confounds ideas about “objective” documentary. In addition, Hillman’s notations record her emotional states, “the useful panic” she feels throughout the meeting. When Hillman likens these notations to the abovementioned “secret script” invented by women in remote Chinese villages that “men couldn’t read,” their inclusion raises the question: why is there no panic in this talk of body armor and battlefields in the (male dominated) voices (“calm in adult talk”) of government officials and defense contractors?
These contrasts highlight the difference between frontlines and homefront as well as offer an example of how we might refuse the narratives created about our wars. As Hillman explains:
Whether or not you have the strength to resist official versions that are devastating the earth and its creatures, you could in any sense send back reports. If political parties will not provide solutions, the good can occur when people gather in small groups to work for justice in each community using imagination without force.
Imagination offers not just an opportunity for sympathy and recognition of complicity but also emphasizes the important role of poetry in resisting “official versions” by reclaiming the language of bureaucracy and visualizing new possibilities. Hillman explains: “Shelley wants you to visit Congress when he writes / a violet in the crucible & when he notes / imagination is enlarged by sympathy.” It is important to remember that writing a poem is distinct from a political act, like protesting or occupying. Hillman admits, “There are no results in poetry.” And yet the exploratory, speculative nature of many contemporary political poems provide an important counter discourse to official versions from the state or the media devoid of subtly or complexity. Hillman demonstrates how poetry offers a medium at once imaginative and sympathetic in which to investigate relations of power, language, and complicity.