Poetry by Roberta Hill

July 26, 2012

Roberta Hill, UW-Madison professor of English, shared these poems as part of a Q&A for the Nelson Institute website. View our conversation with Hill to learn more about her experience teaching the course Literature of the Environment: Speaking for Nature, along with her thoughts on the importance of blending science and the humanities.


Rain through Wires
For Michael Sutton, composer

You call from California
to share the sound of rain
beating on rooftops, palm leaves,
patios, drains.  Drops are drumming--
hitting the rim quick
palming a groove in congas
shaking caxixi.  They hand us
hope in the oldest sound by pushing
heels in the hide stretched
so thin it becomes a living
voice, the voice of healing that hearts
hear in wood when it
honors its underground.
Tambourine, marimba,
shakers in rain.
The base travels on a
syncopated patter.
My mid-west ears, stuffed
with snow, listen to your gift.
Nations of drummers leaving
the world above, a diaspora
afraid of being left,
afraid of losing love,
afraid of doing something
wrong.  Their music tumbles
in the time it takes to break
a heart.  We listen
to the weaving of riddles, shifts
in tone, more music on the ground.

You sit on your bed, the room
full of mixers, midis,
modules, amplifiers,
your door wide open,
keys you play all day glint
in muted light.  You’re pleased
with a rhythm whose swell
leads you into feeling
the mist lolling in the window,
drops pearling your hair.

Blue notes of exile
stay in city textures,
ruthless avenues, glitzy
stores, the furrowed world
of streets where people meet
sudden danger and do rituals
to keep songs from crumbling,
rhythms from breaking, poems
from slackening into sighs.

Loneliness marks a heart
like a muddy boot.
We search for a word
that sings,
afraid of being left,
afraid of loving, afraid
we did somebody wrong.
We push ourselves
searching for progressions,
a fresher key, but are there keys
we haven’t found, Michael,
chords the rain is playing now,
words the drops sing from worlds
above, words the moon
is fondest of? 

Sound shapes
vibration cohering in a void,
a voice with no choice
but to play.
Truths in music
make troubles change--
big voices, the ease of language,
the memory of an LA breeze
reaching me through the phone. 

The tongue depends on heart,
the heart on breath
and breath begins a gift
that cycles into song
coming from ears
that have practiced long
by listening to rain,
by paying attention to that hope
always greater than we need
falling near,
there as well as here.

Small Power

Each seed

as it

doors in-
to earth.
It’s good

to get
out of
step with

One small
change of

ly done 

much thought
stirs up

from be-

yond and
it’s like



winds to
join them,
It’s like

nubs of
rock shift-
ing the

weight to

more flow.

lives in
It’s good

out of
step with

the same
ol’ same
ol’ same.

With one
small change
you may
feel new

through you
and all
you love.