Perfect Hell, Poems by H. L. Hix. Reviewed by Dana Gioia in Ploughshares, Winter 1996-97.
H. L. Hix’s Perfect Hell is the most original, accomplished, and intriguing debut volume I have seen in several years. I am so impressed by this dark and disturbing volume by a little known poet that I could easily offer up a dozen more plaudits, but these three terms of commendation seem especially appropriate. Perfect Hell speaks in a wonderfully original voice–an unexpected but alluring combination of almost surreal procedures set to formal music. Not uncommonly Hix’s poems consist only of sentence fragments or catalogues of mysterious unconnected images. A few of his titles will illustrate his queer and quirky sensibility: “So Many Rats, So Many Florins,” “As With the Skull, So With the Nose,” “The Spindle Turns on the Knees of Necessity.” But Hix’s poems are utterly accomplished. Unlike most experimental poems, his succeed as forceful, expressive, and memorable lyrics. Their poetic frisson remind us of how many allowances we normally give experimental works of art. So grateful for some meaningful novelty, we forgive avant-garde literature many failings if it does something new well. Finally, Hix is consummately intriguing in his unrestrained exploration of the poetic possibilities of our eclectic fin de siècle.
Why not combine the seldom realized associational excitement of Language Poetry with the musical rigor and narrative savvy of New Formalism and then add the dark violence and sexuality of early Surrealism?Perfect Hell joyfully combines stylistic elements we seldom see joined. To Hix, rhyme and meter do not seem incompatible with fragmented syntax, surreal dream logic, or collage. In less capable hands (or without a perfectly pitched ear), this postmodern eclecticism might prove disastrous, but, mirabile dictu, Hix brings it off. The poems not only cohere; they emanate energy. Hix’s nonpartisan omnivorous aesthetic is particularly intriguing because it hints at the potential of American poetry beyond the current Poetry Wars. Why not combine the seldom realized associational excitement of Language Poetry with the musical rigor and narrative savvy of New Formalism and then add the dark violence and sexuality of early Surrealism? One might create, as Hix has, sonnets that sound like inspired collaborations between Richard Wilbur, Nathanael West, and Andre Breton as in the macabre opening of “No Less Than Twenty-Six Distinct Necronyms”: “Father dead, we will call her, or Niece dead. / Cousin in car crash. So many names fit. / Sister cut wrists, Brother shot in the head. / Grandfather wandered off, Great uncle hit / By train while drunk …” Partial quotation does not adequately convey the intricate musical effect of Hix’s poems, but this brief passage provides at least a sense of his deliberately disturbing subject matter.
How will a poet who has debuted so remarkably develop? This is an impossible question to answer, but I worry. Hix’s voice is so extreme and idiosyncratic that if he wrote with less consummate musicality or probed less deeply into his secret and uneasy material, the poems might seem merely odd. But Perfect Hell stands beyond such criticism. Sadly, however, I must end on a cautionary note. Although Hix’s poems are superb, the typography of Perfect Hell is dumbfoundingly dreadful. But Hix shouldn’t fret. Poems this good will be reset and reprinted many times.
First published in Ploughshares (Winter 1996-97)