HL Hix’s First Fire, Then Birds

Central question: If God does not listen to us, then who does?

HL Hix’s First Fire, Then Birds

Stephanie Burt
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What a terrific, frustrating, disorienting, enlightening, sometimes-monotonous, often-exhilarating experience it is to read through—or attempt to read through—what amounts to the first edition (there will be more) of Hix’s Collected Poems. Nobody now at work in American verse combines his attraction to programmatic Big Projects (narrative, philosophical, or procedure driven) with his supple interest in older tones and forms.

Hix’s earliest published works were critical prose, here represented by pages of aphorisms: “The writer aims at oracle: voice so profound that its words can never be fully fathomed, so forceful that the world conforms to its will. Every sentence a riddle, every word a fate.” His eight books of verse do not quite fit that impossible rubric, but some come close: Surely as Birds Fly (2002) comprised an incandescent set of ex-Soviet scenes (“Stack bricks high so windows stay above snow”); a pitch-perfect set of horrifying anecdotes (eleven dogs stuck in a squalid home, a filicide); and an unforgettable narrative (updating Job) about a father who keeps getting struck by lightning while his kids die in unlikely ways. One child muses, “Let others, to whom the god of power / has not spoken, pray to the god of love.”

This collection also includes such stand-alone standouts as “Star Chart for the Rainy Season,” whose long lines and longer sentences pursue an ever-­receding object of desire like “doves released to cross the waves toward the receding horizon,” and such big projects as the achingly slow-paced, gradually compelling set of fifty-two sonnets (one for each week of a year) called “The God of Window Screens and Honeysuckle” (2005). Gems of suburban seasonal observation make way there for queries about a Creator’s creation: “God: nothing: sidewalk patch made odd-colored by rain, / song of moonscape’s sleep, lava crunching underfoot, / black wingtips on white pelicans in formation, / a yellow plastic children’s slide the next day, wet / with neglect but shining, gray shingles dried to brown.”

Questions about a personal god, long passé for so many poets, are for Hix no settled matter: raised in the rural South, he has chased shadows of ­Christian ­belief through much of his verse, where praise for ­immanence, mystery in perception, competes with painful, forceful demonstrations that God’s—or nature’s—ways hold no justice for us. “Small birds collide with closed windows,” as “two planes collide in mid-air”; “Only after drifts covered my cold car / did I know I would die there.” After detours through analytic philosophy, Hix returns to religious material in “Synopsis,” a new sequence whose elegant short poems retell bits of the Gospels.

Hix is a late Romantic (like Rachmaninoff, like Pete Townshend) with an almost-gregarious taste for comprehensible excess: his gifts include a passionate intensity, a happy indifference to fashion, and a willingness to fall flat—a necessary virtue for a poet who tries, as he does, to soar. His best poems show single scenes (as in “Window Screens”), tell shocking stories, or accumulate single, quotable lines. Hix has also made long series by less-fruitful methods: “First Term” consists wholly of ironized quotations from George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden; “Remarks on Color,” of repetitive musings on love and reactions to Wittgenstein. Skip those, and skip the misguided “Eighteen Maniacs,” with its Berrymanesque faux-dialect, and you’ll have a very big collection, one attuned to the oldest, highest goals, a book you can open over and over to find something ambitious, attentive, and new.

—Stephen Burt

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