Hillary Gravendyk: In Memoriam

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Burrill
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Burrill

by Lyn Hejinian


Brief preface

It is illogical for the living to die. It is especially illogical for the living to die young; “young,” after all, signifies distance from mortality, a condition far from death.

Hillary Gravendyk has died young.

As it was illogical for her to do so, so it seems equally illogical that she could be alive still and live again. But she will do so. This will happen in our memories of her, abundant and on-going, and in the posthumous publication of her scholarly and poetical works. The latter will unfold over the next few years. What follows is my contribution to the former.

Intellectual and creative companion, poet, scholar, courageous friend; this is for you.


“Resolute as the canyon oak” is an elegy for Hillary. The brief explication de texte that follows it intentionally borrows from the genre that Dante’s La Vita Nuova exemplifies and intentionally expresses the hope that its title expresses: the new life.

The poem lacks linearity, as will be immediately obvious. Linearity has no meaning in relation to Hillary’s life now, nor to my memories of her. She, in her many particular, singular, unrepeatable, embodied moments, is now simultaneous, and she who was once somewhere, is now everywhere. This alone, in my opinion, is what immortality means. Well, this, and that one is remembered as a simultaneity with others’ memories and with other people’s lives.


For Hillary: Elegy

Resolute as the canyon oak, she branches, then leaves
A hit can indicate an accidental interest or a very real interest but at a
She breathes glances
Call her a poet at a podium, tolerate fate with pandemonium, savor the
There are some who must do what they do with harm
A novella is not a plump story though it might be of people in chairs
Order is preserved as citron, a unit of value, a curl in increasing sugar
This cannot blunt the point of the parallel between a cough and a thought,
or there is no parallel
I can’t run away from you, I can’t, says the gingerbread man in the end, if
there were one
I will say that sleep is political
Anise pleasures, dirt under sky delights, gravitational merriment—these
are those
A dune in the distance draws on, sighed into sutured inches
Let us remember a women who exercised luscious wonder, let us greet a
man with a circumspect camera
Are you atop a word hill, having cast aside map and syntax, and do you
see us



I start with “Resolute” because, as I wrote to Hillary Gravendky’s husband Benjamin Burrill a few days after her death, Hillary’s way of being in the world was simultaneously resolute and compassionate. In my letter to him I described that as “a combination that exuded such force that—regardless of what we all knew [of her illness]—it was impossible truly to ‘know’ (whatever that means) that she would die young.” The branches and leaving with which the first line of the poem continues are descriptive, predictive, and also mournful. “Leaves” names the new greenery on spring trees, but it refers, also, to Hillary’s departure. The Pacific coast landscape is seen at a moment of melancholy. Nonetheless, by inserting the magnificent canyon oak into it, I suggest that Hillary will share something with the tree—that she will endure. The canyon oak is an evergreen.

The “hit” named in the second line is the cruel stroke of fate that inflicted a terrible disease and disablement on Hillary. But it refers, too and equally, to the enormous gift that Hillary and Benjamin bestowed on the UC Berkeley English Department’s poetry-related website—namely, an ability to keep track of the number of “hits” it received. In my annual fall report, as Chair of the Holloway Poetry Committee, I was able to state the astonishing statistics that this ability disclosed—hits from all over the world, hits representing purposive, or random, or sometimes desperate searching for the sounds and substance of poetry.

The third line obviously alludes to the breathing difficulties caused by Hillary’s disease, and acknowledges that rather than long study her researches would be circumscribed and have to take place in “glances.” That said, it should be noted that her dissertation was the product of sustained focus and rigorous scholarly labor. And thus it is that the theme of breathing returns, in the 12th line of the poem, which alludes to the “suturing” together of all the parts of that dissertation, and to the ultimate continuity, the wholeness, of Hillary’s teaching, scholarship, academic writing, and poetry.

In the fourth line I remember Hillary in the Maude Fife Room of UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, reading from her work, but also, since for two years she was, with me, the curator of the Holloway Poetry Readings, I acknowledge the centrality of her presence in the poetry scene during her years at Berkeley. She knew she was ill, but she was entirely free from self-dramatizing inclinations. Instead, she maintained a capacity for oversight, measure, and (albeit sometimes sardonic) acceptance of the egos and exigencies that are so much a part of academic and literary life.

By Christmas time of her first year working with me on the Holloway series, I knew of her ailment—though I had no way of actually comprehending the enormity of what she was facing and what she had already faced in terms of fear and spoiled dreams. The phrase “savor the sweet” at the end of the third line speaks to my awareness of Hillary’s courage, the contrast (so often manifest) between her acerbic “take” on things and her generosity of spirit, and—in terms of Christmas—the first, though by no means last, package of Christmas homemade goodies that she and Benjamin bestowed upon me and my family—which included various cookies, preserved orange and grapefruit rind, and a jar of preserves. The cookies had character, the preserved citrus rind offered the joy of simultaneous sweetness and sourness, and the preserves were spiked with tantalizing herbs. These things were 100% to my taste; they were entirely, without exception, the best “treats” imaginable. I put the cookies and preserved rind curls (see line 7) on a plate. My husband had a cookie. I ate all the rest in a single evening.

The “harm” at the end of the 5th line does not refer to Hillary and Benjamin’s enticing me to over-indulge in Christmastime treats. It refers to the title of her poetry book, so beautifully published by Omnidawn. Hillary was a poet because she felt the necessity of being one, and she remained answerable to that necessity to the end of her life. If she had lived on, her yielding to the necessity of being a poet might have “harmed” her academic career—who knows? I myself don’t think so. She never lacked focus, understanding, a love of learning and knowledge. She chaired an MLA panel on the “poet-scholar” because she was one, innately as well as intentionally. Even as her illness worsened, even as it must have looked to her as if she could be neither, she refused to give up either.

Among the many projects Hillary sustained during the last couple of years she was at Berkeley and then on into her few years as a member of the English Department faculty at Pomona, was the editing of, and composition of a critical introduction to, the late Larry Eigner’s novella Through, Plain. It is an account, told from within a participating consciousness, of events at a summer camp for disabled teenagers. Eigner himself attended such a camp, and probably endured the physical and emotional complexities that the novella recounts. Some of these were the result of pranks and mishaps involving wheelchairs.

In the seventh line of the poem, I attempt to integrate what I can only call the luscious vitality that Hillary emanated into the shrinking of her horizons and then place it—the “curl”—back into the context of her proper world. The shrinkage was only literal—pertaining solely to her bodily condition; the purport of her work and her being was never anything but expansive. The reference specifically to citron (preserved citrus) I’ve already explained.

With the eighth line of the poem, I challenge the notion that vitality can’t be integrated into disability. I feel I have to combat that miscomprehension, because Hillary would have demanded that I—we—do so; disability is not a negation of vitality. Humans are embodied, there’s no doubt about that; perception, point of view, the way the world appears, the sites at which the world appears specifically at any given moment to a particular consciousness (whether human or not), all assume that existing things have material being in time and place. The label of “disabled” doesn’t fill a category, it just begins one. And the trajectory of that identity both will and won’t intersect with others of equal or greater truth. Each identity-trajectory’s truth will vary in importance at any given time.

In line nine, I continue this thought, returning both to the (perhaps ridiculous) baked goods theme (although what is more satisfying to a body than food?) and advancing the theme of the scary, uncanny, defiant gingerbread man familiar from the children’s rhyme: Run run run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man. That refrain used both to terrify and fascinate me when I was a child. I found the notion that a cookie might taunt us appalling. The rhyme seemed to declare the intransigence of incongruity, the dangerous potential of the familiar and normal. At the end of one of Hillary’s “Diorama” poems, she offers an obverse view, wherein the grotesque is seen to have a potential for aesthetic beauty.

Outside is a blue mouth stuffed with wet canvas,
a long brick of teeth, our thick hearts
sheathed in algae. There’s enough room to adjust
the vantage.  At some points, it’s quite pretty.

The tenth line of my poem is introduced selfishly. I would have asked Hillary if she thought this were true. In Harm she investigates dream states, which were, in fact, mostly post-surgery states, ICU experiences, but which were, in poetry, an investigation into liminal states and the blurring of boundaries between bodily and mental perceptions. There was always a political valence to Hillary’s work on embodiment, perception, and the phenomenological entailments that are inherent in every specific, particular body-world. Disability studies was, for Hillary, a political as well as a scholarly field. It was not just what to think, but how to think, that concerned her. To put it bluntly (and her friends all knew that Hillary could be wonderfully blunt), abilities can be differed, but they should not be “dissed.”

The eleventh line (albeit obliquely) extends the political status of “sleep” as a site of diverse, and sometimes disarranged, ability into that of “nature.” Embodiment is natural. In ways, that’s what nature is: embodiment. This pertains not only to humans, of course. Hence my evocation of the pleasures of anise, horizons of grit, the joys of heaviness, groundedness.

Hillary, in her poetry, often attuned her readers to the ever-changing interplay of the vast with the minuscule. Details slide, expand; forests come down to the flicker of the shadow of a blade of seaside grass. “Ahead the sky is winnowed to its smallest feature. Starred with damage, the body. What was promised, what / was revealed.” That is from the title poem of Hillary’s book Harm. In the twelfth line of my poem, the winnowed sky has become an advancing dune.

The penultimate line summons Hillary before us, along with her husband—her friend—Benjamin, who was so often present at the Holloway Poetry events, discretely photographing the poet with what always struck me as a very high-tech, though modest-sized camera. Of the two, at poetry events Hillary was the commanding presence; I often thought that Benjamin yielded everything to her on those occasions, tucking himself behind the lens of the camera, out of sheer love for her. Looking at photographs of Hillary now, I am reminded of the radiant and serious vitality that was so characteristic of her—a kind of luscious, committed generosity of being. She practiced that as a student, as a scholar, as a friend, and as a poet. She will always have embodied that committed generosity of being. Her dying can never be the end of that.

I address Hillary directly at the end of the poem, knowing that her orientation now is utterly unlike ours, and that she can’t answer directly and doesn’t need to.


The following are five poems (of many) written by Hillary Gravendyk’s in the context of English 243b days and related extra-curricular experimentation. All were responses to open-ended constraints imposed by an invented “game.” Two were written in collaboration with another poet (Mia You and Julian Brolaski).


Goethe wrote about ginkgos, two merging in one
like grey and green prisms along a dim wall
but ginkgos are everywhere here and we two

Are everywhere: cluttering bright outlets & alleys,
searching for flat places to rest. I first found you
arrayed across cigarette-strewn beaches, always smiling

into a sensible horizon of liquid and space.
Let’s keep describing lakewater and arguing that
a painterly conception is one of surface

or surfacing light, and the little pinpricks
we designate as vanishing points can
of blackness remind us, that we still

persist in fiction. This is a way of seeing
into a long corridor of successions
that resists the necessity of longing.

Emerson dilated our forested words
as a cosmos leaking into a single evening, transformed
Into a single eye, icy and clear

like the sky you left behind. The next morning
our interruption was bracketed by a fluster of
yellow leaves pressed firmly into dirt by snow.

This is the long gap between promises, where
that empty space is a tear rather than joining and its
starkness feels like a strewn jungle, or else

a desert with no conception of cold. Let’s
examine the undersides of regional specimens and
keep wondering why iron is coldly chiasmic

At the edge of seasons, light feels like a blade
gently cleaving beyond our view, and we weigh
the pressure of a named wood, sliced open like an apple

laid bare against the slow drying of heaven.
A thick felt skin makes for kindly grasping.

—— Mia You and Hillary Gravendyk


Sonnet beginning with a line by Clark Coolidge

This notebook is too heavy, and not even half
Of what’s inside is true. But perhaps no one
Will die “for lack of what is found there”
I confess, this is likely. Buttered rolls
With marmalade always remind me of sun-strewn
Winter mornings, cluttered with newsprint and dozing
Labrador-retriever mutts (sandwiched between the
Table-legs and our legs, they snort and roll over).
“Hillary, I’m watching your eyes not move across the page,”
you wheedle, breaking the spell of 8 o’clock. This time
there is sapgreen pine and I’m fresh-plucked off the vine
Of hours. “I never loved you” or “I never wanted to love
You”—it’s the same lie—C’est égal
I was always revising those as last lines.

—— Hillary Gravendyk


The Golden Nugget of Virtue

Put your shin guards and bells honey
And call me shorty, tho’ I am not short
After all, my playclothes and tricks are both dirty
& my hopalong is grinning in the mud, far from a sea
Oerrun with barkers and the smell of hot sugar
A cliff that bends, or breaks, along its axis
Backdrops the boardwalk carnival, rockshard shimmying down.
The sequel has been shelved with the golden nugget of virtue.


I just ate my weight in green licorice.
Line two misheard as “Put on your sin garden belt, honey”]

—— Julian Brolaski and Hillary Gravendyk


Still Life with Cues

My god, the lunar acrobats are dead set against me.  My idealism is rotten, a mushroom threaded with white grubs, or no: unfretting that fungus, my position blooms like a phosphorus bug under a damp leaf (the trapeze moon is telling that lie around town—voice like bright papercut along the knuckle of my dismay). So perhaps I will place my own word back into the still-life bowl, blue with glaze, and brimming with soft pear.

Jeanne heaps herself upon it. the thick paint of her crusting the edges of fruit and linen.  the speckled fruit pricked with brush-hairs. Her hand, my hand: a kind of greed.  Three bells ring outside, a kiss breeds spots of rain along the insistent frame.  Anything bigger is sweeter, especially when it comes in pairs.  What would pour out, after the first slice?  The syrup of a cross-over country tune?  Eyes like those of six-o-clock shops, fermé, and the hot breath pressing on the back of the throat?  This syrup is thicker than blood, and spinning.

These confusions are always dangerous: bodily fluids, the memory of kissing mingled into the belly of sweet, imbalanced flesh.  But let me say more about the horse, the one in in the museum—hollow bellied and full of swords.  I kept swallowing, what else could I do?  The lighting was so variable, the spinning so measured, like marching (that’s not true).  Madame Sostritis informed everyone to fear death by water, but we wept anyway.

Chest pressing into bone the very weight of wetness, or stone.

Back to belief, and heaps of it.  The compost of letters and eggshells reads:

Dear Madame,

The disorientation was planted.  Let us not, after all, forget that it was your musings which proceeded after the last bell thrummed the air.  Not to say the ruby seeds of pomegranate vines won’t germinate, they will.  Let me say it plainly: you were brilliant, I was young.


Wet and liminal as the dead of Dante (rained out for once and hissing with smoke).  Their festival pitching and thronged with noise, the black circles of a genuflecting sea ringing each nightmare in.

—— Hillary Gravendyk



The gestation of the event horizon bloomed only
into this monstrosity of gold
gas melting faces and silence
both before and after.  The pictures, anyway,
look the same: the man padded with sorrow, the man
sinewy with desire – it is a kind of obscenity, putting them side by side, while the ocean thrums with unrolling shudders of war and calculated toxic releases
I’ll gladly give him the credit for that,
Cavernous as he is with holes for approval: it is a kind of burning, or a something that
has been burned, like the lit charcoal snakes that grow at the tip of a match or sparkler, uncurl into a black body thick and bending, the illusion of them, their sensitivity to
wind, that is the image of him,
between the two cards of
documentation set flaming on the table, the clutch of headlines, furious
teeming but receding, distance a mute shoved in the horn of the bleeding
or obvious:

  1. The liberality of meaning
  2. The Fat Man
  3. Dante, circling.

But I’d never admit this under any other name but yours—your voice a shrill flowering.

—— Hillary Gravendyk