A Constellation: For Hillary

Hillary and her husband, Benjamin Burrill, at Cabo Pulmo, Mexico
Hillary and her husband, Benjamin Burrill, at Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Dan Clowes.

by Jessica Fisher


In the house Hillary and Ben bought on Baker Street, they had a huge wooden bowl full of marbles; when my daughter Sylvie was little, she loved to make the marbles spin, their constellation a fascination for her, and for me watching her watch them—beautifully formed things put in such motion that the danger was they would fall out of orbit, fly the coop. I don’t know why it’s that image that I keep returning to in the three unimaginable weeks since Hillary has died. Part of it, of course, is that thinking of her directly is still so very painful, and the image of the bowl mesmerizes me until I can return to my memory of her quieted. Part of it is that it figures the way she made a bright constellation around her, figures her fast-moving, brilliant life.

I met Hillary at Berkeley in 2003, in her first year of graduate school; I had started the doctoral program several years before, and we got to be friends through our love of poetry. We were together in Lyn Hejinian’s amazing workshop in Fall 2004 and in a writing group that grew out of it; we were also both members of the wonderful reading group that became known as the Bateau, which included Bob Hass and Brenda Hillman and a number of inspiring graduate students then at Berkeley. Hillary and I lived near one another in North Oakland, and would often meet up to write or hang out. In those years of deepening friendship, and of increasing commitment to our lives as writers, we talked a great deal about how to imagine our lives as poets and critics, and worked side by side on our respective dissertations and first books. Hillary was writing many of the poems that would be part of Harm, the beautiful first volume she published, but also some lesser known gems—reading through old emails, I am reminded of the dozens of poems we traded over the years. And we had such fun together with her beloved Ben and my Dan—camping at Point Reyes, traveling to Baja California, cooking and gardening together. As you can see from the photos above, we were so young, and it seemed then, to me at least, that she might some day recover.

If you’re reading this, you likely already know what an incredible poet Hillary was, with her deeply visual imagination, her love of the natural world, her capacity for wonder. Many of you reading this already know first hand what an amazing friend, scholar, teacher and person she was, how capable in every way. Because she was so ill for so long, loving Hillary has been bittersweet for me, and I have been mourning her intensely since she wrote over a year ago that the doctors had run out of options for her; several of the poems I’ve written since receiving that letter are about her, and tell more than I can here about how dear she was to me. When I last saw her, in June, I didn’t know how to say goodbye; after we’d talked a long time, we just sat on the couch, holding hands. What we have lost, losing her, is immeasurable, but so too is what she brought during her brief, intense, beautiful life.

Often when I wake these last few weeks, it is from her. Moments ago, the bright dawn and birdsong roused me, and Hillary stayed behind in the dream where we were talking, as we had when she was still alive, about why I gave my son Ellery as his middle name. Dylan was born on Hillary’s birthday, March 1, in 2010, and is her namesake; his is the masculine version of their shared name, which stems from the Latin hilaris, cheerful. You are, I told her in the dream, the fiercest and most joyful person I know. Dreams are perhaps so fully self-fulfilling to be not a very good source of information, but in the dream she smiled. She was always so wry; just now, before the sun woke me, she was saying that it’s awesome to see how loved she is, by all of us.


The Voice (by Jessica Fisher)

Voice kept coming in and out


the connection got bad

when I moved toward the couch


went back to the window

where the signal was stronger


looked out onto the brick wall

soon to be demolished


tried to imagine what the space

will be once it’s gone


could think only of an absence of brick

and not even that really


Only the problem was on her end


tried to catch what she was saying

an October without memory


the voice went the way

a drowning person quiets


first there was that sputter

then nothing


it does that she said when she returned

meaning the phone


and then I lost her again

and not like a voice underwater


no voice

and the conversation still going


I mean we weren’t done talking


You’re gone now I said

didn’t know whether to fill the silence


it was after all the subtext

of our conversation


brought a taste of the unsaid into it


a taste of it in the wild sweep of day

heard myself calling her name

Jessica Fisher and Hillary at Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Dan Clowes.
Jessica Fisher and Hillary at Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Dan Clowes.