H.L. Hix
February 2009

 

H.L. HixH. L. Hix lives in Laramie, Wyoming, where he struggles in vain against the weeds and pocket gophers that high desert favors over the peonies and lilies he keeps trying to grow.  He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas, and teaches in the creative writing MFA at the University of Wyoming.  In addition to his poetry books, the most recent of which is Legible Heavens (Etruscan Press, 2008), he has collaborated on translations of Estonian and Lithuanian poetry, and written books of criticism including As Easy As Lying: Essays on Poetry.  Besides his mortal failures, his venial failures include having given up on classical guitar after years of futile lessons.

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Sparrows and Fireworks and Ruins

As I write this, sparrows scuffle on the skylight.  Or maybe — the skylight is translucent, so I can’t see the birds, and surely in this dry place its rim collects dust — they’re merely taking dustbaths.   In any case, the convex skylight amplifies the sound and sends it throughout the apartment my partner and I are renting, in which any sound echoes over the cement and tile floors and plaster walls.  In rain, the skylight leaks a little, leaving small puddles in the stairwell that make the hard stairs slick.

It is a Sunday morning, still early.  At six a.m. sharp, in the plaza of Santa Domingo, the cathedral near our apartment, fireworks began.  Not the fizzing lights Americans associate with our Independence Day, but the exploding, sonic kind (that high whistle sliding swiftly down an octave or so, then BOOM).  A few minutes after the first fireworks, bells, not tolling the hour in stately fashion, but as if sounding frantic alarm, or as if the swinging of the bell’s rope were an athletic contest.  More than once I have seen the bellman laboring at La Sangre de Cristo, down the street, a small vigorous silhouette visible through the openings atop the bell towers.

Yesterday, with three companions — my partner, a hired guide, and an old friend, an artist I hadn’t seen in ten years — I visited Monte Alban, a mountain ridge with sublime vistas in every direction, crowned with a vast complex of monumental architecture, ancient ruins partially restored.  Now an archeological site, Monte Alban was for a thousand years — from about 500 BCE to about 1500 CE — an important urban center, capital of the Zapotec empire.

It’s July.  I’m in Oaxaca for two weeks, to take Spanish lessons.  I’ve had beginning classes at my university, so I can (in principle, if not in fact) conjugate any regular verb and the most common irregular verbs in any tense, but I’m a middle-aged man and the classes are large, a combination (weakening memory and insufficient practice) that means I haven’t advanced very far.  I hope even this short immersion will help.  Except a month ten years ago cloistered with other English speakers at a residency in Spain, it’s my first time in a Spanish-speaking country.

A week ago, while we waited in line at the Denver airport to check in for our flight, the woman in front of me turned for some idle chat.  “Where ya headed?,” she asked.  She and her travelling companions (apparently her husband and another couple) were buoyant, laughing and talking loudly.  They looked to be recent retirees, each with a set of golf clubs to be checked.   “Mexico,” I replied.  She smiled at our kinship.  They, too, were bound for Mexico, as I had inferred already from the parts of their conversation I’d overheard.  But then — I had no golf clubs, no tennis gear — she looked for a little assurance.  “Cabo, right?”

One might travel for various reasons.  I’d be wrong to be smug in dismissing hers or finding too secure a satisfaction in my own.  (Problems with my travel, after all, are obvious enough, starting with the jet fuel burned just as much for me as for her on our shared flight.)  Still, her reasons and mine do differ.  She travels to make life (at least temporarily) more as it ought to be, to recreate Eden and approximate Paradise.  I travel to make my life briefly more as it actually is.  Both of us seek to heighten a set of conditions: she, those that secure her as owner and consumer of her life, her world; I, those that clarify my condition as resident alien.  For her, travel offers buffets and beaches and green fees included in the package at one low price, needs met and desires fulfilled without obligations to interfere, others like oneself with whom to share the pleasures, visibly different others to cook and clean and drive and leave a chocolate on the pillow in the evening when they turn down the bed.  For me, travel offers conditions to recognize as my own and people to see as myself: those sparrows and fireworks and ruins, the visible ribcages of dogs roaming the streets.

Just so with poetry.  One might come to it seeking confirmation that god’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.  I come to poetry seeking to find what I didn’t know I was looking for.  One might come to poetry seeking consolation from the familiar, assurance that all is as we’ve always known it to be.  I come to poetry to be defamiliarized, estranged, to have what I take for granted taken away.  That ever unfamiliar world offers less security, but enforces more awe.



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