Dammit. American poet Hillary Anne Gravendyk Burrill, otherwise known as Hillary Gravendyk, died on Sunday after an extended illness. For those who might not known of her or her work, her poetry collection, Harm (Omnidawn, 2012) [see my review of such here], wrote around the body, and more specifically, the facts surrounding her double lung transplant in 2009. Through the publication of Harm, we began a small correspondence, and attempted to keep up with each other through emails and facebook, and I could see some of what she was dealing with, distracting her away from the work she so obviously fought to return to. We had discussed the possibilities of her engaging the ‘12 or 20 questions’ interview questions, but we never quite managed such. She generously provided a blurb for the back cover of one of my trade collections, and promised that she would get me some poems, once she was writing again. I enjoyed her work tremendously, and, despite not knowing her terribly well, enjoyed her remarkable energy and generosity, especially through her physical difficulties. I am wishing we'd been able to meet. Her last email, from early April, included:
How are you? I've been enjoying the pictures of your sweet Rose on Facebook. What a charmer. My health is always a crisis, but in the last few months I've had a welcome sense of stability. Things aren't getting better, but they aren't crashing like they were in the fall. Just adjusting to the new normal, enjoying the pleasant SoCal weather, and taking pleasure in many things: LACMA, many good books, learning to knit, cooking, and finally getting back to the business of writing poems and essays.
If you are interested, I've also got two collaborative poetry projects going now: a book-length one with the poet Cynthia Arrieu-King, a shorter one with the poet Maureen Alsop (whose work I think you'd really like, do you know it?). I wonder if you might have a good idea of publishers that would welcome (consider, even!) collaborative book projects?
This email includes everything I enjoyed about her missives: the delight she took from others, as well as the possibilities of her writing projects, but also includes both an acknowledgement and subtle downplay of her own health crises. I knew she’d been struggling with her health for some time (and knew it had been quite bad a few months back), but didn’t realize it was as bad as it was. Since the news of her passing, others have begun posting small notes on Hillary and her work, such as this piece on The Eat and Run Mom, a video of her reading posted on Ron Silliman’s blog, a piece posted on the Pomona College website, two poems reprinted at The Mark on the Wall, and a piece by Brenda Hillman forthcoming at Omnidawn. My own little poem "in memoriam" appeared earlier in the week at Moss Trill. With the notice Hillary’s husband Benjamin Burrill wrote on her Facebook page on Sunday afternoon, he included this poem:
To know me as golden is to know me all wrong. Every time I breathe in it smells rusty, like blood, and when I cough there is blood in the air.
If I were in charge of these special effects, I’d make it thicker; it’s so hard to take it seriously. Bright little hearts and stars and carnations on a white cloth.
Let’s go out with a thicker line, a cerulean skylight, rain that gets dumped out of a trough to thwack the pane of glass, a smear of red like tempera paint across the cheek or the hand, streaming from the mouth.
Let’s have a disaster, a lake made of salt, a blackout. Everything riots and unspools, the whole room on one side and all the sound winking out.
You stay here. Let me run into that starring role, pinker and more flooded with blood: remember when it meant exuberance, remember awe? Let’s be that breathless.
In that same email I received in April, she sent along four poems for consideration for the “Tuesday poem” series I curate over at the dusie blog, all of which I accepted, to post on July 22, 2014. I offer one of them, here:
You creep through the air, a voice calling my name
in this dimmer winter where keels freeze to swells
I was lost in the delicacy of your warning, at sea.
Held myself against the roll of your tongue,
the door open like a mouth and the air falling
through more air, a hole in the light—
You carry each pinprick of rain and lay
me in fragments on the counterpane,
you circle the room, a quieting crow.
The window slices absence into segments
the door slaps the side of the house
and I’m ankle deep in clouds.