Donna Hilbert, Threnody

THRENODY: POEMS, Donna Hilbert. Moon Tide Press, 6709 Whittier, CA 90608, 2022, 102 pages, $15 paper,

ESSAYS ONE, Lydia Davis. Picador, 120 Broadway, New York 10271, 2019, 528 pages, $30 paper,

While reading poems this month, and blogging each day, I have also been reading Lydia Davis’s Essays One, a gift from a friend. She said, “You must read ‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,” so I did, and now I am reading the whole fat book from the beginning. This week, I am stuck at Davis’s essay, “Fragmentary or Unfinished: Barthes, Joubert, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Flaubert.”

Of course, any book, and any piece of writing, is already part of a cooperative. It is, in itself as printed on the page, incomplete. It requires a reader to complete it. But the reader may also misunderstand it, distort it in favor of another idea, forget large parts of it, misremember it, create something different in misremembering it, etc. All these responses are perfectly legitimate parts of the cooperative act. (Davis, p. 204)

It strikes me that all poems are, by definition, fragmented. Too densely written, too explanatory, they tip over into prose. (One of my own dangers, in writing narrative poems.) While reading Donna Hilbert’s poetry, Davis’s words have hung over me and made me wonder where I’m not being equal to the task. Consider this, the shortest poem in the book:


In the dishwasher,
nothing but spoons.

—Donna Hilbert

And consider Davis’s insight into uses of the fragment, the fragmented:

…when I think of the fragment, old or new—it is a text that works with silence, ellipsis, abbreviation, suggesting that something is missing, but that has the effect of a complete experience. (Davis, p. 208)

Hilbert has a big job, writing about grief. Again, I think of Lydia Davis. In this passage she  quotes Barthes: “incoherence is preferable to a distorting order” (p. 220), then continues to comment on Mallarmé’s book after the death of his son, A Tomb for Anatole:

The notes become the most immediate expression, the closest mirroring, of the writer’s emotion at the inspiring subject, the writer’s stutter, and the reader, witnessing the writer’s stutter, is witness not only to his grief but also to his process, to the workings of his mind, closer to what we might think of as the origins of his writing. (Davis, p.221)

This is what I think Hilbert is doing throughout Threnody, deliberately conveying a fragmenting experience. I first caught sight of this book on the publisher’s website, and both the title and cover leapt out at me, threnody, meaning lament. As I was trying to cobble together a book of poems about my childhood, and the loss of my parents, I felt Hilbert’s book would be of help.

It turns out that Hilbert is lamenting many things (as are we all), and though her husband’s death looms (“looms” is the wrong verb), she is also writing about the pandemic, about a stand of trees that shelter a heronry, about children leaving home, about her (our) own inevitable aging. A few of the poems are longer, and, on a first reading, had more of an impact on me. But when I began rereading the poems this morning, the shorter poems got their due. Here is another example:


For the brown pelican
diving into morning ocean,
I thank you, Rachel Carson.

—Donna Hilbert

If you encounter this poem all on its own, it seems true, of course (don’t we agree?), but … it’s hardly enough. In the context of this particular book, however, where things and people are lost who will never come back, where birds weave in and out of many of the poems, it fits like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle and helps create the whole. Or, do I mean “the whole”? Words fail me. It takes a sympathetic reader to fill in the gaps. I think that’s the point. 

I have been trying to write this review all day, and it (certainly) is not enough. Let me leave you with one of Hilbert’s longer poems.

Walking the Palo Alto Marshes in My Red Coat

Say mud flat, salt marsh, bittern, egret.
Say egret without thinking regret
one letter away.

Say morning is a gift.
Say the mud flat is a silver tray.
Say birds sing like an orchestra tuning.

I am looking for a prayer.
I am walking for the saving incantation.
I am working at metaphor.

Say blackbird.
Say red wings like epaulets of blood.
Say heart: red four-chambered room.

Say womb, breast, cradle, boat.
Say desire.
Say desire: dark and fathomless,

the iris of an eye, your eye, the sea.
Say desire,
which is the boat.

I am wearing my red coat against the cold.

—Donna Hilbert

In short, the first time I read Threnody, several months ago, it didn’t have much impact. My re-reading of it, today, felt much different, and I’m grateful I decided to circle back to it.

Donna Hilbert has several books, and is the subject of a documentary about her work and life, Grief Becomes Her: A Love Story. To read about Donna Hilbert, check out her personal website. You can listen to a poem from one of her previous books on The Writer’s Almanac, here.