Bored in Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark by H. L. Hix

Middle Creek

Review by Walter Cummins

In yet another of life’s serendipitous coincidences I happened to read Mark Hillringhouse’s 1982 interview with Howard Moss, the New Yorker’s long-time poetry editor, the same day I began H. L. Hix’s latest poetry collection, Bored in Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark. I hadn’t intended to seek a connection between the two, but Moss led me to think about what poetry does and how Hix accomplishes something that few, if any other poets, can. He accesses the abstract and theoretical principles that encompass the human realm, making them tangible though the richness of poetic sound and form.

According to Moss, “Poetry isn’t music, but it’s musical, and therefore what it’s really doing is taking language as meaning and language as music and doing something not ordinarily done—using both for another purpose. Poetry gets at the archaic and real non-verbal substance of the self through words.”

That statement holds for almost all poetry, which probes what it means to be human, exploring the human condition, the dense nuances of human emotions and experiences. Hix wants to go beyond that to place the human in an absolute context, how being human relates to all that is, to transcend the limitations in which all of us cope with our lives. We’re aware of only a fraction of the existence that immerses us. If ecology is the science of the relationships between organisms and their environments, Hix has created a poetical alternative to that science. He challenges himself by not only seeking to relate human functioning to the workings of the universe but also turning that quest into poems that enrich the contemplation. Moss says, “Language is in the unique position of being that medium through which experience is expressed and also of being an experience in itself.”

Each of the fifty poems in the collection has its origin in a theoretical quotation, in almost all cases from a scientist or philosophical thinker. These are collected at the beginning of the book and, if read one after the other, provide a sense of the multiple complexities the poems that follow attempt to connect to human existence. Hix has gathered these quotations from minds like those of Aristotle, Euclid, Bruno, Harvey, Hooke, Lyell, Darwin, Mendel, and Curie as sources.

For example, the 33rd poem, titled “The membrane between structured and structure,” comes from Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: “And the ultimate source of the project that living beings represent, pursue, and accomplish is revealed in this message — in this neat, exact, but essentially indecipherable text that primary structure constitutes.” The poem begins:

Looked down on from above, the river would meander,

but viewed horizontally from here on the rim

the slanting canyon walls look layered, interleaved,

as if multiplicity and distribution governed:

no one ultimacy, located in no one ultimate.

Goldfinches spill from one maple to pool in a next,

Sequential in flight before they regather.

Water striders bumper car across the pond.

Borers practice arcane cursive under lodgepole bark.

These lines fulfill Moss’s notion of language as music but go beyond getting “at the archaic and real non-verbal substance of the self through words” to get at the non-verbal substance of the human presence in the physical world, questing to decode the text of the primary structure—the ultimate—by deciphering the mystery of the arcane cursive.

After the unknown under the lodgepole bark, the poem turns to a human mystery, mortality and erasure in a photograph, most likely of six sisters whose names are known but not which name belongs to which woman. Someone in a later generation has painted—not neatly—colors of the dresses on the print. The poem closes with the speaker stepping back to see a patch of paintbrush flowers intimating their color and structure, but a structure that is only transitory.

“Arcane” serves as an essential word for the pursuits of this collection, the hope that each poem will illuminate its source quotation with a realization that weds the human experience to the abstract understanding. Yet, while we are enveloped by the details of rich evidence, we never connect with the ultimate. As Hix writes; “The experience escaped me, but I offer this report. / The truth escaped, but left a trail of evidence.”

The poems speak to this limitation to reaching the goal of the trail, as in the concluding lines of “Subject to contest, but not to appeal”: “I speak of what we forfeit to our urge to rise, under a sky / with high and higher but no highest, what we surrender to our urge / to descend deep and deeper into what delivers no deepest.”

“How my body frays” opens with these lines:

I’ve tried in this account to correlate

outside with inside, environment with organism,

reference with sense, body with soul,

but it’s exhausting to be exhaustive, and I’ve left out

a lot so far …

And these are the final lines of the last poem in the collection: “The whole system’s hum makes this my singing a being sung. / My one location marks my absence from all others. / Those tanagers tell my coming unstructured.”

Despite the music of these poems, whatever voice is singing the words and rhythms, they only hint at the substance of the ultimate location. Yet in their perhaps impossible quest they are fulfilled as poetry.