February 2011
A review of

First Fire, Then Birds

by H. L. Hix

Central question: If God does not listen to us, then who does?
Book’s subtitle: Obsessionals 1985–2010; Book that changed poet’s life, according to 2006 National Book Awards interview: Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard; Poet on teaching: “In the moment, conversing with students in the classroom, it is joyful, almost ecstatic, but as an ongoing fact and a duty, I find it intimidating, even overwhelming”; Schools where poet has worked: University of Texas, Austin; Representative sentence: “Now I want what can’t be true, what I must live / under, in a wide field the one shadow, / defying lightning, living a reprieve.”

What a terrific, frustrating, disorienting, enlightening, sometimes-monotonous, often-exhilarating experience it is to read through—or attempt to read through—what amounts to the first edition (there will be more) of Hix’s Collected Poems. Nobody now at work in American verse combines his attraction to programmatic Big Projects (narrative, philosophical, or procedure driven) with his supple interest in older tones and forms.

Hix’s earliest published works were critical prose, here represented by pages of aphorisms: “The writer aims at oracle: voice so profound that its words can never be fully fathomed, so forceful that the world conforms to its will. Every sentence a riddle, every word a fate.” His eight books of verse do not quite fit that impossible rubric, but some come close: Surely as Birds Fly (2002) comprised an incandescent set of ex-Soviet scenes (“Stack bricks high so windows stay above snow”); a pitch-perfect set of horrifying anecdotes (eleven dogs stuck in a squalid home, a filicide); and an unforgettable narrative (updating Job) about a father who keeps getting struck by lightning while his kids die in unlikely ways. One child muses, “Let others, to whom the god of power / has not spoken, pray to the god of love.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. Some of his books are The Art of the Sonnet, with David Mikics (2010), Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009), and Parallel Play, a book of poems (2006).

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