From the depths of sorrow following the sudden death of her closest female mentor, Brenda Hillman asks anguished questions in this book of poems about separation, spiritual transcendence, and the difference between life and death. Both personal and philosophical, her work can be read as a spirit-guide for those mourning the loss of a loved one and as a series of fundamental ponderings on the inevitability of death and separation. At first refusing to let go, desperate to feel the presence of her friend, the poet seeks solace in a belief in the spirit world. But life, not death, becomes the issue when she begins to see physical existence as "an interruption" that preoccupies us with shapes and borders. "Shape makes life too small," she realizes. Comfort at last comes in the idea of "reverse seeing": that even if she cannot see forward into the spirit world, her friend can see "backward into this world" and be with her.
Death Tractates is the companion volume to a philosophical poetic work entitles Bright Existence, which Hillman was in the midst of writing when her friend died. Published by Wesleyan University Press in 1993, it shares many of the same Gnostic themes and sources.