Friday, April 5, 2013

Poetry Review: "Moaning Action at the Gas Pump," Brenda Hillman

This review was first published on Pol Culture.

I’ve rarely had much patience with didacticism in the arts. It doesn’t matter whether I’m sympathetic to the artist’s position or not. The earnestness of the message and the aesthetic demands of good art often seem at odds. In short, I find art is generally not a good pulpit from which to preach.

I was pleasantly surprised by Brenda Hillman’s prose poem “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump,” which is clearly a protest against our complacent societal dependence on oil. Hillman’s impetus is also clear: the devastating 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She combines a series of absurdist effects, historical allusions, and associative identifications with her message to create a devastating and artful whole.

Hillman begins on an absurdist note: “Soon it will be necessary to start a behavior of moaning outdoors when pumping gas.” It creates a bit of a shock for the reader, and keeps one reading while she elaborates. She then presents the identification that alerts the reader that the oil spill is the impetus for the moaning, and by extension, the poem. The phrase “a deep choral moan with cracks up through the body” is juxtaposed with the phrase “the crude through cracks of the sea & earth.” She shifts back to describing the processes of the human body in the moan, but the analogy between the moan and the spill is made. With remarkable economy, the former has been made into a trope for the latter.

And remarkably, Hillman’s transformation of the reader’s understanding of the term “moaning” is not done. She expands its meaning further by highlighting moaning as an outlawed political practice in ancient Greece, but she handles this very deftly. The expansion of the meaning in historical terms is introduced, and then Hillman immediately retreats to the present-tense scenario of driving and filling up one’s car. She reassures the reader that she’s not pushing too hard--“you will merely be embarrassed even if you drive a hybrid.” But this proves just a pretext for doubling down on her message: “Please be embarrassed. Please.” There’s clever footwork in this rhetorical strategy. A word that at first marks retreat is simply a pivot to a different step forward. The wordplay is quite shrewd in its pursuit of effect; it fakes the reader out before striking another way.

The artful rhetorical shifts are just as present in the second paragraph. It also begins with an absurdist note, but the note is not a mundane bit to be expanded on. It’s a wave of horrifying imagery. The most potent symbols of the oil devastation were, of course, the animals trapped and killed by it: pelicans drenched in the sludge, and manatees caught in it. Hillman asks the reader to imagine the creatures trapped inside the gas pump itself. That done, she expands the meaning of “moaning” once again. It’s the sounds of those animals in their misery. Moaning was first a trope for the spill, then one for political subversion, and now it’s one for the suffering the spill inflicted. Hillman’s agility and daring with expanding her meanings is hardly through, either. She then shifts back to the historical associations--she presents history as a series of moanings--and uses this to end on a note of ostensible helplessness. Rhetorically, though, it’s hardly a moment of surrender. It seems more meant to disturb and ultimately shock one into greater awareness and action. Hillman fakes the reader out before striking again.

What makes “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump” work is that while it is didactic, it is not a sermon. Brenda Hillman is a very canny practitioner of the art of words. She’s a keen judge of just how far she can go rhetorically at any given moment. She then uses that boundary as a springboard for a new line of attack. The reader is kept off-balance, and it’s hard not to be impressed at the wit behind her maneuvers. She’s so artful one wants to see what she’ll do next, and that keeps what she says vivid in the reader’s mind. Didacticism is often synonymous with artlessness, but in Hillman’s hands, there’s an art to it after all.

The text of “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump” appeared in the context of a writer’s roundtable featuring Hillman, Nick Flynn, Dorianne Laux, Fred Marchant, Laura Mullen, and Patricia Smith. It was published in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of the journal Gulf Coast. The poem was reprinted in The Best American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty and David Lehman. (The cover image is above.)

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