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This review is taken from PN Review 91, Volume 19 Number 5, May - June 1993.

INTERMITTENT WHALES Brenda Hillman, Bright Existence (University Press of New England) $22.50, $10.95 pb
Sharon Olds, The Father (Secker and Warburg) £6.99 pb
Killarney Clary, Who Whispered Near Me (Bloodaxe) £5.95 pb

Bright Existence is in a sense a companion volume to Death Tractates, which was reviewed in P·N·R 89, though companion is an ironic term, since the latter volume was prompted by bereavement, and is a sort of diary of loss. Perhaps the irony is appropriate since Hillman is preoccupied with gnostic texts, and therefore takes the disjunction between spirit and matter as one of her central themes. Nevertheless there is a unity in Death Tractates which this volume only achieves on a level of mystic ritual that is finally inaccessible to me, and which causes therefore an irritated sense of not quite grasping an overall architecture. Once, in California, I had the good luck to see whales spouting out to sea; a passerby asked what I was looking at and turned to watch them too, at which cue they promptly vanished, only to reappear over her shoulder as she turned back to give me an old-fashioned look. The structure of Bright Existence has, perhaps intentionally, the same combination of largeness and invisibility.

Hillman, as it happens, also writes of intermittent whales, 'moving in a time both linear and cyclical', though here the priorities are reversed:
… Surely the people crave
some blankness between sightings, but
spots one every few minutes: a heart-
      breaking flash,
the cry goes out - each moment a contained
      unit -
then the cry passes, brief as a human life.


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