The Imagined Field, poems by Sean Patrick Hill. Paper Kite Press, 2010.
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Hill’s collection begins with “When You Hardly Knew Your Fingers,” a surreal portrait of a struggling spiritual life. “It’s an old story, need.” he begins (line 1). He continues with images of alienation and loneliness: “Wind in trees, gaunt horses,/A bank of bleeding hearts–//Like granite they make hunger look easy. A matter of grim resistance.” (lines 1-5). Even the dying seem to have mastered their reactions to life (and death) better than the narrator. But solace can come from observing the beauty in the fragility of life: “Take the trillium, for example, its three-lidded eye:/Six seasons seed to flower./Such mild ambition. Did you know as little/As one touch could wreck it?” (lines 7-11). Later, he explains the source of his alienation, relating to the flower, and “…your own fatal contact//When you hardly knew your fingers/Could do such damage.” (lines 20-23). He continues, “Passion is something you beg for…but I wouldn’t say it’s something/You deserve.” (lines 13-15). There’s a kind of humility, there, which could serve to increase the narrator’s alienation, or which could actually shift the focus from himself and outward.
Hill’s poems are powerful, imagistic works that swoop into stunning scenes with solid language. “The Hours” reminisces about the narrator’s past. “I had slept alone for weeks,” he begins (line 1). Hill paints a vivid scene, “Days when rain made idle threats/I climbed the California hills,/And not even poison oak/Could offend me.” (lines 3-6). “This was after the floods./This was during my breakdown./Mud stained the roads/Like a bad memory,” (lines 8-11) he tells us. There are evocative images of eating Sunbeam white bread, old seaside farms. He concludes:
What matters are the hours, like frightened birds.
The way the land ends at the sea and says,
What’s done is done.
The way the sky just keeps walking
Where you can’t follow. (lines 40-44).
“The Last Frontier is Not in Alaska,” paints a vivid scene, both physically and psychically: “In this desert our lives are, at best,/A draw,” he begins (lines 1-2). Hill expresses trepidation towards his surroundings. The “desert” could be real or figurative. “It’s not that sunlight struggles./It’s that clouds never give up.” he continues (lines 4-5). And “Wells are a constant source of worry.” (line 10). It’s a dangerous world with little possibility of control. “Don’t bother to ask forgiveness./The river accepts no excuses./Learn to swim.” (lines 12-14). Even things that might be considered positive are sources of concern:
Unless we do something, blackberries will win.
Then again, they have a way of fixing
The soil for themselves: they poison the ground.
That is, they cheat.
That’s what we mean by the sins of the father. (lines 19-24).
He concludes with an image of scorn: “Lilies our mothers planted are like teenagers/Who say they didn’t ask to be born./They secretly hate us.” (lines 29-31).
Hill is working towards something in these poems. He rarely spells it out or tries to hit the reader over the head with meaning; instead, he lets us work through the process, as well, and come to our own conclusions. “Cairns” delves into his journey:
…My wife taught me her best slipknot,
That love is not that kind
But a mild steel:
No China doll, nor wandering Jew
But something more
Like a dove
Covered in tar. (lines 3-13).
He isn’t romanticizing this idea of love: he’s trying to be brutally honest. He’s trying to get at truth. he goes on to describe a very violent personal experience which served to try to rip him away from this “slipknot.”
A reference that pops up more than once is to Don Quixote. In “The Genius of Birds,” Hill points out: “Cervantes had it right:/you could live your life in a dream and get away with it.” (lines 31-32). And this seems to be at the center of Hill’s struggle: the world seems to be so often an ugly, greedy place, but the ‘dream’ is difficult to live in. But what is “the dream?” Perhaps it’s that tar-covered dove mentioned above. Perhaps it’s an appreciation of beauty or tranquility. But this seems to be fleeting, which makes it all the more precious.