Tuesday, May 22, 2007
H. L. HIX—CHROMATIC
My fellow reviewer on this space, David Koehn, offered a valuable insight about the virtual cottage industry of poets who have made their careers holding forth on the nature of desire. In this he rightly hinted that desire might be the obsession of the American poet. Who could disagree with him entirely? Americans are expert at wanting and having that want be inscribed in the world. Is it not hard to imagine what a poetry of American restraint might look like? The poetry of opportunity missed due to principled objection? That is why when a book of poetry begins with an epigraph of
Desire is the very essence of every single individual.
I become a little wary. Though this is an allusion to Spinoza’s Ethics, one might ask what kind of animal we are talking about with this thing named desire. Is it the desire for love and belonging? for the physical act of making things? an illicit desire? an unearthly desire? all of the above? How might an ascetic come to know all the different varieties? Does watching all the different kinds of desire thrive in the world turn one into a birder or a lepidopterist?
H. L. Hix’s Chromatic is comprised of three distinct sections where textual strategies differ, yet in two of these three sections (namely the first “Remarks on Color” and the third “The Well-Tempered Clavier”) a similar theme of the desire for the beloved emerges. In the second, “Eighteen Maniacs” an homage to Duke Ellington and the world of jazz, a different kind of project is being launched, one that seems to want to attach jazz and other African-American cultural artifacts to a broader world.
The initial section entitled “Remarks on Color” begins with a scene of a boy and a girl coloring, and after that the connection between the dark mind of the male and the female’s shining bodily presence is invoked. The varying short sections seem to be a meditation on the insubstantiality of love. It is a term that strikes one as pure abstraction in the mind of the male speaker; whereas for the female love is hardly abstract:
He calls love the abstraction that counts.
She says love is no abstraction
The abstract quality of love is compared to the insubstantiality of light. One may talk of colors the way one talks of kinds of love or the personae of the lover. These are ephemeral, fleeting. So, the speaker invokes colors and uses them to depict the qualities of that thing called love, of that person called the beloved.
I fell in love with the cold you,
your blue planets restless
among your cold blue stars,
each seeking perfect isolation
Furthering the claim to the non-specificity of love, the speaker says:
My love for you assumes
either the color of sawdust,
or of a milk snake’s shed skin
These are both items whose significance is quite removed from the present and the future. The color of something does not matter, nor does even the absence of color.
Luminosity, the amount of light that is emitted from an object, is also of importance in the poem. The wavelengths of light emitted from the surface of an object are what we see as colors. The intensity of light is seen as brightness. Therefore, luminosity comes into play in not only determining the color of an object but also its brilliance, its ability to attract the eye or assault it. Throughout the collection of remarks made by the unnamed male and female, one senses that the game of attraction and annoyance is highly developed. The properties of light that are compared to the lover make it possible that the beloved’s name could be ROY G. BIV.
Love appears to be a property whose existence can be logically ascertained, similar to the way the colors within light can be determined if one measures the frequency of the wavelength. Yet colors are terms that are abstractions that stand in for the experience itself. In the same way, the word love also stands in, somewhat inadequately, for the experience. In the last stanza the speaker asserts:
In place of lesser abstractions
I wonder now only about love,
about how to paint this graying light,
how to look at this darkening
and say what it reminds me of,
or who it calls to mind,
beautiful but never touched,
who was with me once, or might have been.
This final stanza seems to overlook the real biological effect of the state called love, the effect that oxytocin has on the brain. The speaker’s state of mind is also reminiscent of what one says about teenagers in love: that they are in love with the idea of being in love. In this poem, the idea of being in love is torn apart and examined, related to the insubstantiality of colors. But there is a concession made that as one acknowledges the abstract it makes its presence felt in the tangible world:
Now I see the abstract.
I feel the impression of color,
the hole a rootball leaves
when a leaning life fails
Even though it is abstract, its absence makes an impression.
The final truth of the poem, that love is an abstraction every bit as abstruse as light, is understandable intellectually, but hardly defensible as a coherent viewpoint in light of one’s lived experience. The female, above, in these remarks is right. Apart from a touched body part or a hand draped along a body, there is very little substance of the beloved present—no shared smells, no shared grime or fluid. Perhaps this might be a characterization of the pristine beauty of the moment of love. This abstract love does not have any hint of the grotesque.
Aside from just discerning the theme of this poem, which sprawls enough so that I may be overlooking a vast array of connotation, the poem employs a style that is anecdotally narrative. The short sections are almost always discursive, except for:
I may be introverted but.
There are different definitions of.
I always wanted to with.
Additionally the light.
If only I had listened when.
Long ago I gave up trying to.
No one who says that of pure colors.
When we are I imagine you as.
which draws attention to its interruption. I find it curious that there is only one example of this kind of abbreviated utterance. It strikes me as an example of “this, too, can be a part of the poem.”It might be emblematic of the infinite rays of light refracted through a prism. It, too, is part of the spectrum of colors. On the other hand, this section might also be illustrating the inadequacy of language to get to the core of the speaker’s emotional attachment, which the speaker reveals later:
I mean more than I can say aloud.
Why is there no gray light?
Hix appears to be fascinated with the conversational. The different sections of “Remarks on Color” use bits of debate and spoken word as the source for their being. By appropriating the spoken word into the text, he appropriates the ineffable and makes it substantial. [Is this a parallel movement for the abstract love he is describing? Perhaps, but it takes a lot of teasing out to get there.]
The second section of Chromatic entitled “Eighteen Maniacs” gets its title from the term that Duke Ellington used to refer to his band members. The poems consist of a left-hand column which employs a caption of one word or a short phrase for the right hand column to which it obliquely corresponds. Often times the left-hand column will employ a proper noun or a bit of verbiage that makes a reference to black speech or African-American cultural artifact, particularly with respect to the blues or jazz [Example: “Tremonisha,””Lovie,” Cake walkin’ babies,””Low-down achin,’” “Tickle Joe,” “Doggin,’” “Jumpin’” “Strange fruit”].
The right hand column employs short bits of language that has an obscure relation to the left –hand column. The connection between right and left column allows for a lot of space for the reader to make connections. Here are some examples from literary magazines:
The language in this right-hand column seemed strained to me. It wanted to be about the “music” in the speech, so it uses a lot of sounding techniques like alliteration and assonance:
Wunna you boys rough-burl me some
elbowed walnut first, then somebody spindle
me up some sabled maple.
This reads to me like someone trying too hard to swing, like Lawrence Welk trying to sing the blues. Is this Lawrence Welk putting on blackface? I will assume that Hix here is appropriating the speech of black America’s past and reorganizing and reformulating it to pay homage to its verve and vitality. However, there is quite a bit of this language in the right-hand column that seems made up out of whole cloth, imagined, so that I wonder if all of this language that Hix uses is appropriated and not his own take on black speech.
Of course, I have no evidence that any of the language is appropriated as nowhere does Hix make an explicit reference to his appropriation. I can only assume that (like the left-hand column where he makes reference to the songs of Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, among others) much of this language points to its source as being written or spoken elsewhere first.
I don’t want to come off as some kind of cultural purist. I think it is important for all of us to re-imagine each other’s cultural spaces, insert ourselves into it to reclaim it as a part of our own. However, this kind of appropriation, though brave, has me pondering the question of why Hix decided to use this language, to play with it as source material. Is he overstepping his cultural boundaries to lay claim to items from another culture beside his own that he cannot legitimately lay claim to. The key term to focus on here is legitimacy. Every individual who comes to Hix’s text will have to decide what is legitimate. The fact that this question comes to mind may already appear as problematic. Certainly in all the space Hix has created between his right- and left-hand columns, the issue of cross-contamination between the culture Hix presides in and the black culture he visits does not readily appear to be on the table.
There are some interesting inclusions that might speak tangentially to this matter though. Often Hix will include a catalog of species names in the right-hand column. One can see it in “Rabbit Foot” in the last block of right-hand text (#6). Also in right-hand block of text #6 for “Misbehavin,’” and in right-hand block of text #3 in “Say When.”The inclusion of these lists in the mix along with the “lowdown” speech Hix is appropriating suggests that Hix is attempting to reconcile disparate kinds of language. Then again, in all three sections Hix moves towards language that alludes to nature. Often he moves towards the language of nature as the source for his stock of metaphors. One wonders if the inclusion of these lists of species names isn’t just a natural predisposition of his and not a particular stratagem he is employing that is commenting on the connection and rift between two worlds.
Other references to cultural items outside of black American culture include: Montuna (traditional clothing of Panama), Chalumeau (a woodwind instrument of late baroque and early classical period), coloratura (a very high soprano given to elaborate ornamentation), Cheraw (an Indian tribe of South Carolina probably derived from the Sioux), Siboney (an indigenous tribe of the Antilles). These few references to cultural items outside of black America are vastly outnumbered by references that do refer to black American culture. The panoply of items collected here may indicate the influence and spread of African-American culture or they may be placed in here to produce a collage effect.
Or is the cross-talk between song titles on the left and the text on the right. Are these impressionistic?
Of course, I can’t rule out that I have missed some major clue about what is going on here or that I should simply be satisfied with the semi-referential field that Hix has constructed as an objet d’art. Also, the determination of whether “Eighteen Maniacs” is often an example of some bad vamping should be suspended until I have heard Hix read the right hand sections aloud. Would he sing them? Chant them? At least exhibit some sense of syncopation and tonal variance? I suspect, though, that this is not the case and that these pieces will be read in the dreaded White Anglo-Saxon reading voice, full of seriousness and earnestness with only a touch of inflection, recited in the rhythm of the English ballad.
These objections of mine aside, Hix has done some interesting research into the jazz and blues world. He makes reference to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, The Three Deuces (a Chicago Speakeasy where jazz greats came to jam in the 1940s), Noble Sissle (collaborator with songwriter Eubie Blake), and rhythmic zouk music from Haiti and the French Caribbean. The question remains: does all this kind of research legitimize? Is the brief invocation of a handful of cultural stars and other items enough to lay claim to this language as anything more than dabbling? Is scholarship of a subject enough to appropriate these items for the purspose of constructing an art object? This reminds me of an old joke I heard once on a reservation: Q. What do you call a Navajo family? A. A mother, a father, a son, a daughter and an anthropologist.
The third section of “Chromatic” is, unfortunately, even less accommodating than “Eighteen Maniacs.” The connection to the title of the book of these two sections is presumably based on their musical motif. Chromatic scale. Get it? However, with the third section’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” we are entering into the territory of Bach and the fugue.
Each of the poems in this section are given the name of one of the 24 preludes and fugues that make up Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Each piece consists of an initial section that is formatted like a block of prose, extending clear to the right-hand margin. Then there is a large black dot that serves as a separator. Then there is another bit of text that is again presumably supposed to relate to the first block of text before the separating black dot.
Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C
My life makes sense the way a wildebeest’s does: first weakened
by illness and thirst: then separated from the herd then
surrounded then captured; one lioness takes his neck in her
jaws: the others have his hindquarters; dust rises and the brittle
grasses give way goodbye goodbye; the wildebeest’s eyes bloom
with fear and ecstasy; the first he knows nothing then he feels
nothing: then his front legs buckle.
disbelief won’t stop our speaking to you
don’t wait for us to say who we are
that’s the least of your worries
listen for names you might hear poison
settle at night on the grass
soak through the pads in your dog’s paws
disbelief won’t stop our falling in love
everything here is like it is there
except there light reflects off faces
here light shines all the way through us
there dusk has begun coming earlier
here dusk always comes earlier
disbelief won’t stop our telling you lies
don’t wait for love to return
it never comes back it follows us
listen for names you might hear yours
in the fog muted and diffuse
fog the atmosphere most like us
disbelief won’t stop our betraying you
is that thunder we love rain
rain the weather most like us
we fall in love here again and again
things still die back to black stalk here
the rose no less than lovers’ names
that it can’t be never stopped love before
we fall in love here trust us trust us
our faces die back their petals brown
and fall to the poisoned grass
it’s always getting darker here
it’s always dusk the light most like us
I suppose the overarching connection between the two sections is that falling under the spell of the beloved is like being devoured by a lioness. One might fall into a state of disbelief that it is happening, but the process continues. The use of the plural first person in the second part suggests a collective speaker with multiple parts/personas. This multiple speaker addresses a female other and also refers to a he who serves as interloper between the collective speaker and the female other. As the poem continues, with much labor, one is able to piece together the idea that the speaker in the first sections is an individual with a body that possesses/is possessed by desire that he is addressing. The conversation in the piece is between an individual with a body addressing his desires (in the first sections) and the disembodied desires addressing the man (in the second sections).
But this is only the beginning of the pronoun slurry. Yet, it is a different kind of pronoun slurry than one might encounter in early Ashbery. Over the course of the 24 sections, a maddening collection of addressing the you while referring to the he, the she , the we, and the I begins to take shape.
The speaking voice throughout the second sections becomes ever more disembodied, and its ability to channel other bodies comes from this disembodied nature. The speaking voice in these second sections is speaking from beyond a standard corporeal position. The latent desire in the speaker becomes dislocated from the body of the speaker. It becomes ethereal (which mirrors the ethereal quality of love in “Remarks on Color”). At the same time the body of the speaker is being consumed (although it is unclear by what, but most likely by the plethora of desires) the way that the lioness consumes the body in “Prelude and Fugue No.1”
Adding to the confusion, there are hints that all the verbiage may be dream speech. In “No. 13” the speaker says
in twenty-four keys she spoke in her sleep; with forty-eight fires Bach invented the sun
And later in the same piece:
find here so many preludes for the trunk of my car; I wanted to see if these two dozen would burn:
In the first few of the first sections throughout “The Well-Tempered Clavier”the focus is on a tableau within the natural world. Animals are strutting their stuff in their respective ecosystems. A rather violent animal desire is close to the surface. Orcas are hunting cod. Tubeworms are swaying over volcanic vents. Each invocation of a species finds it ready to appropriate a meal, to eat a body as it were. This is punctuated by orcas sending signals (much like the way the speaker is sending some sort of signal to a disembodied other).
After these initial few first sections, a litany of desires of the speaker(s) prefaces each first section: my cold dark salty desire, my drifting desire, my clandestine desire, my white and ivory desire, my sunburned desire, my parched desire, my alien desire, my silver gelatin desire, my ancient desire, my winter-dented desire, my saurian desire).
That’s a lot of desire. And presumably it is all these kinds of desires that are the collective the speaker is addressing. The desires are consuming him. As each one comes into being another one dies. The speaker is being consumed like an animal by a fleet of desires. In this way Hix seems to be signaling that desires are their own species in the world apart from the bodies that they inhabit, but not entirely apart from them either. But with all the multifarious aspects of desire, it is natural to ask: what is not desire. This is a question not readily answered by Hix’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” And to this reader, it makes me wary when someone invokes that much desire. It makes think that one of those desires is going to be transgressive. It is going to violate me and my space. So, I’m paranoid about the desires of others. Forgive me.
Yet riding the undulating wave of Hix’s speaker’s desire(s) makes me a bit anxious. I assume I am, as reader, to be kept perpetually off guard about which careening desire is headed my way next, which one I am supposed to field at any given moment. And it is at this moment that I wonder if I might be visited by a little more restraint. I asked myself: if I were to thrust a wide array of odd desires upon someone, would I be rewarded?
After sorting through all the disembodied desire and the nude desire (desire au naturel), I am confident that I am no closer to an informed reading of this piece than I was at the beginning. The open space that Hix provides in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” provides the reader for ample opportunity to dog paddle. Ultimately, I felt I drowned in all the desire. The language spoken in the second sections (presumably that spoken by the many disembodied desires) was particularly flat. I understand why it needed to be differentiated from the first sections, but I had a hard time focusing and caring about what the disembodied desires were going on about. The insipid proclamations, confessions and disputes about love in these sections wore me down. It was like eavesdropping on two obsessives madly declaring their love for each other.
Perhaps, though, it is just my frustration with this poem that keeps me from spreading the love. Those who might come to understanding the pattern (or some other pattern) in the poem earlier might be more tolerant of it.
My final estimation of “The Well-Tempered Clavier”makes me wonder if Romantics don’t sometimes use desire to absolve themselves in the same way that Christians use God to justify their actions. With a straight face a Christian might say that he acted in a particular manner because God told him/her to do so. Might not a romantic do the same with desire? Desire becomes the ultimate scapegoat, especially when it is disembodied, removed entirely from a body and its potential to wreak havoc in the world.
Chromatic has been blurbed by two of the most well-respected poetry critics writing today: Dana Gioia and Stephen Burt, and their disparate voices both lending approval to this text is what made me interested in this text. Gioia writes/blurbs:
Among the new writers who interest me most at the moment . . . Hix is cerebral, ingeniously inventive, and often scary. He is an experimental poet whose experiments usually succeed—a rare event in contemporary letters.
I am not sure what Gioia means by scary nor how he measures the success of experimental poems, but I find his approval of this text befuddling. Gioia’s tastes are almost always tailored to reflect the tastes of the hearty middle of the mass-consuming public. This text is hardly that. Its difficulty would seemingly be hostile to the average reader, but then again, with its focus on love and the lover, this might make Gioia more apt to sidle up next to it. This makes me suspect that what Gioia really disapproves of in so-called work outside the hearty middle is that it possesses ideas (as most of Gioia’s work does not . . . it aims solely to please the limbic soul). This, in itself, is a disturbing assumption about the hearty middle, that they might only want to feel good. However, perhaps this is not too surprising from a man who wrote jingles for the better part of his professional life.
I find Hix’s aspirations to embrace a new form and language, one might say even to be avant-garde even, as commendable. I wanted to join in with the song above the din of Gioia’s revisionist protestations about the illusion of the avant-garde. In the end, I just didn’t find the language and the observations offered to be that compelling.
As for the other blurbists championing Hix’s philosophical rigor, sorry, I just don’t see it.
Hix does not write poetry because he wants to but because he must: though he appropriates (and cites) all sorts of sources, he is less a magpie than a bowerbird, compulsively collecting and arranging phrases meant to catch our eye.
There can be no doubt that Hix is a meticulous arranger. But it takes a kindred spirit for straightening to truly appreciate it. Those who feel compelled to join in the cleaning when someone else initiates the first impulse to rearrange dust and dirt and clutter might have a better time with this book. Though I must acknowledge that after all the meticulous rearranging, Hix still leaves his readers with an earnest mess.
My frustrations with the book might be partly due to the fact that Hix has truly created a new language and a new structure to put it in, and as my expectations about the text were undermined I reacted in a hostile manner. I appreciate his central message of how desire can warp language. He does this in a way that appropriates the passionate desire of the surrealists (without their penchant for wildly altering the physical relationships of things in the world) and marries it to the fastidiousness of the LANGUAGE poets and their obsessive stamp collecting with the language. The result is a linguistic ride that left me a little bit dizzied and nauseous though, admittedly, any amusement park ride does the same to me.
Indeed, it might be only one of my disembodied desires floating in the aether and trying to play macrophage with respect to my body playing virus that has me placing the specific kind of warp on my language in this review/entry. Therefore, I am relieved of any responsibility in making my grievances. My devilish desire(s) made me do it.