Poetry Sunday: Mighty Forms by Brenda Hillman

I've never experienced an earthquake, but I imagine it could be terrifying. To think that the solid Earth could crack and open up and swallow structures and people. Yes, I think it would be terrifying.

But poets make poetry of anything. Brenda Hillman makes a poem about the experience of an earthquake. 

Mighty Forms

by Brenda Hillman

The earth had wanted us all to itself.
The mountains wanted us back for themselves.
The numbered valleys of serpentine wanted us;
that’s why it happened as it did, the split
as if one slow gear turned beneath us. . .
Then the Tuesday shoppers paused in the street
and the tube that held the trout-colored train
and the cords of action from triangular buildings
and the terraced gardens that held camellias
shook and shook, each flower a single thought.

Mothers and children took cover under tables.
I called out to her who was my life.
From under the table—I hid under the table
that held the begonia with the fiery stem,
the stem that had been trying to root, that paused
in its effort—I called to the child who was my life.
And understood, in the endless instant
before she answered, how Pharaoh’s army, seeing
the ground break open, seeing the first fringed
horses fall into the gap, made their vows,
that each heart changes, faced with a single awe
and in that moment a promise is written out.

However we remember California later
the earth we loved will know the truth:
that it wanted us back for itself
with our mighty forms and our specific longings,
wanted them to be air and fire but they wouldn’t;
the kestrel circled over a pine, which lasted,
the towhee who loved freedom, gathering seed
during the shaking lasted, the painting released
by the wall, the mark and hook we placed
on the wall, and the nail, and the memory
of driving the nail in, these also lasted—


  1. This is an innovative interesting poem. I enjoyed reading it. I also have never experienced an earthquake.Thanks for sharing.

    1. I've been on the fringes of a few minor quakes, but I wasn't even aware they were happening. I can't imagine what it would be like to be in the middle of a major one.

  2. The poem is very evocative. I have never experienced an earthquake first hand but I visited Agadir in Morocco a couple of weeks after an earthquake struck there many years ago, and the devastation was incredible. I don't know how many people lost their lives but entire buildings had collapsed and there surely would have been people buried in the rubble. It must be a terrifying experience.

  3. I've never been in an earthquake other than minor shakes. Hillman captures the moment, and some of the terror that I'm sure I would feel. Interesting poem.

    1. Isn't it amazing how poets can see poetry in anything?

  4. I have lived through a couple. After all I live in southern California. I testify this poem is for real.

    1. I thought you might identify with this one. I was actually thinking of you when I selected it.


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