Incident Light
H. L. Hix
Etruscan Press, $17.95 (paper)

For over a dozen years now, H. L. Hix has been documenting his attempts to grapple with the world in a series of fascinating and intriguingly odd collections of poetry that sidestep the most commonly used and easily deployed categories. He is almost traditional in his apparent commitment to the idea that poetry should be about something, that having a subject matter can energize rather than enervate the work. Yet at the same time, the skittish fragmentation of his work, its refusal to resolve into clarity, certainty, or even, at times, intelligibility, and his preference for the poetic sequence over the individual lyric, all seem to indicate an affinity with postmodernism. There is, though, one categorizing statement that we can confidently assert: Hix is, in a deep and pervasive sense, a philosophical poet.

A poet so described—a “philosophical poet”—is as likely to feel aggrieved as complimented. The common view is that poetry and philosophy have conflicting aims, so that concern with the philosophical will necessarily sabotage the poetical. The poet aims to reopen our eyes, to renew our faculties of perception, to dissolve preconceptions and return us to the things of this world. Philosophers, by contrast, direct our attention away from things; their goal is to construct a system, a theory, a set of generalities whose massive weight will crush any individual perceptions unable to assimilate themselves to the niches the system assigns them. Philosophy tends to be both abstract and abstruse, and aspires to a kind of finicky dryness that denies or ignores as irrelevant the messy and ungovernable anxieties and passions that are the actual wellsprings of human action. Of course, such broad strokes do justice to neither poetry nor philosophy, but both are genuinely interesting only when they grapple with the world as it is, or at least make an honest, committed attempt to do so.

Hix’s inclinations toward philosophy are immediately evident. He borrows his epigrams from Gottfried Leibniz and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance. But these are mere surface signs; skim them off and the fact remains that Hix’s poetry is not merely philosophical, but a type of philosophy. If we do not immediately recognize it as such, the fault lies, again, with the stereotypes: this is not the type of philosophy that wants to construct an elaborate, comprehensive theoretical system, but rather the type whose primary intent is to investigate the elements of human life and experience—fleeting thoughts, irrational emotions, existential anxieties—that are inevitably excluded by such systems.

Hix’s new book, Incident Light, is a “biography in verse” of his friend Petra Soesemann, who discovered at the age of 49 that the man she had always thought of as her dad was not, in fact, her biological father. The disorienting effect of the discovery gives the intellectual drama of the poems its juice. Philosophically speaking, this is where the rubber meets the road: what might previously have seemed idle speculations about the nature of personal identity become deeply and anxiously personal when you find out that some significant fact about yourself was a lie all along.

The sense of ontological precariousness that springs from such self-discoveries is only reinforced by the world of Incident Light, a spooky realm of perpetual uncertainty and eerily pervasive danger. A man showing up at the door asking for help and swinging a heavy wrench turns out to be just as dangerous as he appears, but the businessman sitting in the next seat on the plane is also full of malice, and so are the young couple who kindly offer a ride and turn out to be “two drunk murderers / riding in a rusted-out Ford stationwagon.” Meanwhile a train whistle punctuates the moody atmosphere at regular intervals, and the constant wailing of a child somewhere down the street reminds us of the inaccessible, intolerable pain of others. What should we expect, after all, in a world in which we are mysteries not only to others but to ourselves, a world in which “What is real is experienced in impulse” and “Suffering is a condition of all truth”?

Hix invites the reader into the process of specifically philosophical thinking, of searching for intelligible meaning while holding as few things constant as possible.

Most of Incident Light consists of eight-line poems with eleven syllables per line, rendered as if in Soesemann’s voice. (There are also five somewhat longer poems that appear in the sequence at roughly regular intervals.) Above each of the 88-syllable poems hangs a question, usually biographical: “Where did you grow up?” “Where does your name come from?” “Do your sisters consider themselves German or Turkish?” and so on. But the presentation of the biographical information is considerably less than straightforward. Because the information is not presented in chronological order, nor according to any immediately discernible narrative logic, most of the poems seem isolated from those that precede or follow them. Moreover, the eight-line poems do not, for the most part, seem to constitute answers to the questions that introduce them. For instance, as a response to the question “What did you feel when you first found out?” Hix offers eight lines about a shirt—or rather, a series of shirts:

That first one, a cotton button-up, paisley
patterned, not flattering, my hair was short then,
I was young, they all said it made me look like
a boy, but I stained it down to elbow fray
and followed it with shirt after shirt, thrift-store
finds or gifts from friends, lucky shirts that soon had
to be pink so when my car broke down someone
would help. When one wore out I found another.

The difficulty of connecting the questions with their purported answers has two effects. First, it suggests a certain elusiveness on the part of the subject: one comes away with the sense of Petra Soesemann as a person whose recent revelations have left her feeling exposed and who is reluctant to reveal anything that might increase her vulnerability. (As Hix wrote in 1995’s Spirits Hovering over the Ashes, “Writing is not self-disclosure, but self-enclosure: to conceal oneself in beautiful or exemplary ways.”) Still, as the sequence progresses we learn a great deal about Soesemann, including some things that, in a different poet’s hands, would have begged to be labeled “confessional”:

Sometimes I mail them to made-up addresses,
these letters I’ve started writing him, to share
secrets I kept from him while he was alive,
to ask him all I wish I’d known but did not.

Second, the seeming divide between the questions and answers emphasizes the reader’s role in interpreting and constructing the narrative, and in doing so forces the reader into a kind of identification with Incident Light’s biographical subject. In Poets Thinking, Helen Vendler argues that this implication of the reader in the construction of the narrative is essential:

If we are to understand a poem, we must reconstruct the anterior thinking that generated its surface, its ‘visible core.’ That thinking is always in process, always active. It issues not in axioms, but in pictures of the human mind at work, recalling, evaluating, and structuring experience. The evolving discoveries of the poem—psychological, linguistic, historical, philosophical—are not revealed by a thematic paraphrase of their import. They can be grasped only by our participating in the process they unfold.

What distinguishes Hix’s poetry is that it invites the reader into the process of specifically philosophical thinking, of engaging in a search for intelligible meaning while holding as few things constant as possible, and attempting to be neither overwhelmed nor undermined by the vertiginous chasm that inevitably opens beneath one’s feet at such moments.

Thus, while Soesemann’s objective situation is interesting enough, what really seems to fascinate Hix is the manner in which that situation revealed itself to her, which in turn comes to serve as a kind of symbol for the way the world reveals itself to each of us, imperfect and finite epistemic agents that we are. It is not what is known, but what it is to come to know, that is Incident Light’s real concern.

Which brings us to the title of the book. “Incident” light is the light that falls on an object, as opposed to reflected light, the light that bounces off an object’s surface. It is the latter, of course, that determines an object’s color—except that this turns out to be a simplification, for two reasons.

The first is that there is no single property denoted by the word “color.” Rather, as the book’s epigraph informs us: “An object turns out to have a transmission color, a reflection color, an interference color, etc., no two necessarily the same, and each color is a function of detection angle as well as of the spectrum of the incident light.” The second is that if we then ask, as we might well be tempted to, “so which color do we actually see?” it turns out we are still being philosophically naïve. What this question ignores is what is perhaps most crucial: the contribution of the observer. As a poem late in the sequence puts it, “Color is the comparison, not the light, / a property of the brain, not of the world.”

A lesser poet—which is to say, a lesser philosopher—would draw a kind of skepticism from this: we create reality, ergo the world does not exist. But Hix’s point is not that there is no world for us to find, but that what we find is too much for us: to be thrown into a world is to be confronted with an almost unbearably rich wealth of raw experience out of which each of us must somehow construct a coherent, sensible narrative. He even proposes a kind of endpoint to the process: that of making ourselves truly at home in the world, of achieving “a mode of knowing / that has roots,” a mode of knowing that can give us “for one moment a way / of reasoning with unreasonable light.” But of course, while we can imagine such an end in conceptual terms, there is no temporal end: the process of thinking, of world construction, is interminable, for it is life itself. As Hix put it in Spirits Hovering over the Ashes, “The thinker’s task: to make sense of a world. The artist’s task: to make of sense a world.”