Legible Heavens is a difficult book. Not because of any abstruse references or language, but because after examining the long sequences Mr. Hix has strung together, the flow of one image to the next, and the tenuous chains of implication, you may not be sure of what he said.
But before any longer projects, Hix introduces us to his excellent sense of rhythm: “Star Chart for the Rainy Season” employs a grammatical metrical mode, expanding patterns from Eliot's Four Quartets to his own long lines. Consider, “kiss your fingers then touch my cheek let that be story enough / why pretend to be complete when we are not now and will not be again / when we see now we were never complete even when we thought we were,” where Hix announces his intent to wow us with his technical virtuosity.
We shift gears with “All the One-Eyed Boys in Town,” a 36-page sequence developed from quoting various poems that seemed to form a natural sequence to Hix. The lines are reined in to produce a tight syllabic meter: 13 lines of 7-syllables framed by 12-syllable lines that complete sentences from one poem to the next. It's a great idea, and there are many lyrical moments of triumph, but the poems are rather disjointed. Hix actually warns us of this in the beginning with, “The whole series has meaning, but none of its elements has any sense.” Indeed, it's the emotional momentum that moves us from poem to poem, not image or text, although he does run the word, “sequence” throughout.
We're still in the realm of reminiscence, longing, and reaching towards the ether, but made more thoughtful, seemingly precise by the tighter form. Sketched images quickly cycle through the mind's eye, leaving imprints of “your body's gift of spice-scented prayers” or “roofs of short-tempered cities, your sorrowful eyes (sparrows at their dust-baths), my embrace,” summoning a ghost of meaning that lingers. There is good structural support here – the flow of one small poem to the next perhaps mimicking the lone sailing of one distant heart. But after about poem 15 or so, we get the idea, so did we really need the last 21, especially when the images move from “tunnel-damp graffiti” to “pendant flowers, jade beads” without any apparent reason?
Mr. Hix seems preoccupied with the notions of logic, meaning, and its limitations. For example, in the sequence “Material Implication,” Hix constructs a series of non-sequitur if-then statements to take us through many imagistic jumps. This has two chief effects: first, it is a wonderful meditation on the vast, incomprehensible landscape the mind drifts through to arrive at some conclusion, any conclusion, about the universe in which we float, how links more fragile than straw are grasped at in our private desperation. Secondly, it is an annoying, meandering logic that tries to make deep what has only a tenuous, impressionistic connection.
In logic, an if-then statement may have a false conclusion and still be valid as long as the antecedent is false, which Hix mentions at the beginning. However, this is essentially applying for a license to print unrelated nonsense. Take for example, “If in a row of tract houses / that grid the descent into Cleveland, / a dump truck parked diagonally / occupies a whole front yard, then / a woman bows, turns her back to the wind, feeds hatchlings in her nested hands”
Fortunately, the poems sound good, allowing us to float along with them. Add an evocative voice, and we end up with effects such as:
If a Babylonian astronomical diary
in cuneiform on a clay tablet
records the observation on Halley's Comet
in September of 164 BCE, then
why not say cluster of leaves still clinging
to the tip of one branch (the others bare
that blossomed last week) slowly turning
red to brown, rather than name the lover
who is not there? Why not bored boy sitting
on his front steps,
. . .
Why not love the way
even her absence shines, and rustles so?
That Hix does the tenuous long sequence twice suggests that he really means it; however, the feigned appeals to logic can still be irritating. If he really meant to give up on it, a higher degree of self awareness may have been in order, as it can seem like he doesn't understand what he's implying.
The book concludes with meditations on Christian origins and belief. In the epigraph, Hix posits that in searching for answers, delving into our cultural sources may be necessary. There isn't much remarkable here, however, after 54 pages of uncertainty and searching, it is structurally a very fitting ending to the book.
Local lyricism and global structure gives Legible Heavens its power, and Hix's command of these is quite evident. The legible heavens of H.L. Hix are those connections between cause and effect separated by cosmic expanses of time, space, opportunity, and loss; those that in his sharp, straining vision, he can just barely make out and bring to our short, myopic lives.