“Only different kinds of wonder”

Hillary and her husband, Ben Burrill, at Margaret Ronda and Tobias Menely’s wedding
Hillary and her husband, Ben Burrill, at Margaret Ronda and Tobias Menely’s wedding. Photo courtesy of Dan Clowes.


by Margaret Ronda


I met Hillary in our first semester as graduate students in the Berkeley English Department in the fall of 2003. Over the next eleven years, we took classes and taught together, collaborated on poems, studied and wrote side by side, and helped each other with our first books of poems. Such a friendship is a rare and singular thing, its depths difficult to fathom.

What I loved immediately about Hillary was her terrific sense of humor, her sharp insights into texts and social dynamics alike, and her abiding generosity to others. She was the most marvelously fun friend, the kind you spend hours upon hours talking at a coffeeshop with, work left untouched on the table. The kind you can share a glance with across a seminar room or a crowded poetry reading and instantly communicate everything. And she was a deep friend, with wonderful intuition and emotional acuity and tough-minded intelligence, the kind you grow with and learn from in countless ways.

Over our years of friendship, I learned about the fierce determination and intensity of purpose that defined her writing, teaching, scholarship, and her daily life. Hillary was demanding, of herself above all. All that she accomplished, in the face of increasingly difficult physical challenges and the impossible odds of her illness, can only be regarded with astonishment. I think not only of her book of poems, Harm (Omnidawn), which mapped with intricate precision the refractory terrain of bodily trauma, but her critical work on phenomenology and disability in twentieth-century poetics and her remarkable teaching career at Berkeley (for which she won several awards) and as an assistant professor at Pomona.

What Hillary possessed above all, it seems to me, was a fierce creativity, a will to create beauty all around her, whether in intellectual conversation, poetry, friendships, food, gardens, or interior spaces. I understand it now as a wholehearted commitment to living with vitality, exuberance, and care.

It was a commitment, as well, to living in creative community with others. Hillary understood, with perfect clarity, that collaboration and sharing ideas are what the intellectual and creative life is for. She fully embraced this model in her work and life, as anyone who knew her will attest. This collaborative spirit—in art and ideas and life—will live on in so many ways, including in some of the co-authored poems shared on this memorial page.

I want to close by sharing the introduction I wrote for Hillary’s Holloway Series reading at Berkeley in October 2004. It testifies, in however preliminary and inadequate fashion, to what Hillary’s poetry meant to me. I offer it as a testament to a friendship in poetry, everlasting.


Hillary Gravendyk-Burrill Introduction
UC-Berkeley Holloway Series, October 13, 2004

The poet Heather McHugh writes, “The place of the poem is the place of our homelessness, our groundlessness.  A poem is untoward.”  The ‘place’ of Hillary Gravendyk-Burrill’s poems may initially seem familiar: waking to an alarm, tracing air currents with one’s hand out a car window, holding a tool.  But the poems swiftly destabilize any feeling of comfortable acquaintance with place, drawing us into dizzying sonic and perceptual meditations on motion and change, and the makeshift frames we impose to try to grasp them. Hillary’s work engages the process of perception, its adjacencies, simultaneities, gradations, and layered unfoldings:

In the sky there are skies
between clouds
along the road there are,
too, and a sack of bodies or
other sacks; she can’t
tell which.

Her poems mark the complex motion of a happening, deftly mapping the logic of that motion, a logic that eludes a simple cause-and-effect chronology.  There is a delightful kind of curiosity and intelligence in this work, an openness to startling combinations and deformations, to centerlessness—things brim, tip, spill, correspondences are estranged, reformulated, scrapped.  The energy of her investigations comes, in part, from her playful willingness to follow patterns of sound and association.  She writes:

the stop-motion earth still covering,
a rolling stuttering, down and covering
the spinning reel slips and spit-clicks.

Such speed is central to Hillary’s work; yet that speed marries a carefulness, an attention to precision, equally vital to these poems.  Accuracy and action, exactness and ecstatic velocity, combine here in most surprising ways.  These poems navigate passages without destination, movements without trajectory, and reveal our language’s complicity with such ceaseless motion: “after all, with certain verbs the completion of the action is death.” Non-completion, partiality, change, are conditions for living, and Hillary’s work suggests that only a poetry whose “grammar lingers,” “mingles,” a poetry in which a kind of cracked-openness, an “untowardness” of syntax and perception, is the foundation, can hope to reveal what living might look and feel like. Please welcome Hillary Gravendyk-Burrill.

Snow’s Eye (by Hillary Gravendyk & Margaret Ronda)


snow’s eye
shutting on fields
white apartments with closed doors
the ice made a corridor
to crawl inside

bright ladder
to crawl inside
sudden buckle of sound keening
it cracks the glassy surface
gathering blank weather

then releasing
gathering blank weather
at the lidded air’s rim
where soft rungs follow cold
it grows faster

iced evenly
it grows faster
a stopped whistle hollows light
into hard circlets of winter
ornament that clutches

and shines
ornament that clutches
the blue and sleeps inside
your hand, frozen and then
filling with dark

unpinned sky
filling with dark
birds that fold and refold
roof, wires, cloud and field
into paper snow

air pared
into paper snow
circling just out of reach
sound unwritten in the throat
each door ajar