Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Nothing attested": H.L. Hix's _Incident Light_

Life, friends, is complicated. My husband has two fathers: one who raised him, the other whom he met when he was a teen-ager. My daughter has a brother and a sister, but lives only with her brother. What I call my daughter's sister's mother is a question I've not yet answered to my satisfaction. My husband's cousin's wife discovered she was adopted when she was a teenager. One of my first cousins was adopted; one of my first cousins once removed was adopted. I became my mother's legal guardian (adopted her) when she could not care for herself. If blood can be said to run thicker than water, then so does history.

H.L. Hix
is that rare poet who is equal parts historian, journalist, archivist, and singer. He loves to ask questions, as anyone on the receiving end of his questionnaires knows. Wyoming may be cold, but it contains a buzzing inquiry factory in Laramie. So who can blame him for latching onto the story told him by an artist friend, Petra Soesemann, who discovered, at the late age of 49, that her birthfather and her dad were not the same person? Hix's project is built from questions he asked his friend, documents she gave him access to, and into a genre that has no name I know. "Biography . . . of a sort: biography whose first fidelity is not to facts, but to imagination, biography that loosens reality's hold, releases the life into lyric. Nothing attested, everything sung," he writes in "About This Book." But it's more complicated than that, for the book is written in two voices, that of the interviewer (each poem begins from a question) and that of the teller (using the first person pronoun). So, while Hix cannot be called a ghost-writer (even as there are quite a few ghosts in the book), he is not really a biographer, either. Is this an assisted-autobiography? A fusion of the biographical and autobiographical impulses? Hard to say.

Hix is doing something formally innovative, then, with the age-old story of loss, secrets, and identity. This is no fictional narrative, like George Eliot's Silas Marner; nor is it a series of autobiographical poems like those by Jackie Kay or Jennifer Kwon Dobbs or Lee Herrick; nor is it a "straight" adoption memoir or a "gay" adoption memoir like one of my favorites, Dan Savage's The Kid. The writing in Hix's book is clear, but between the questions and the answers is a silence that seems often to break itself. Like the subject of the book, perhaps, the reader discovers only slowly and fitfully what her story is, or what her stories are, or what her stories might have been. The silences between a daughter, her father, mother, and (missing) father are better defined as the book goes on. Less palpable are the silences between interviewer/poet and interviewee/subject. What is the effect of that silence on the emotional affect of the work, on our understanding of the writer or of his subject? These are questions impossible to answer, hence as powerful as the questions that animated the book itself.

If secrets are shadowy, and yet can be brought to light, then Hix lets us know in his headnote that light is itself a changeable thing. He quotes C.L. Hardin's 1986 book Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow, as follows:

"An object turns out to have a transmission color, a reflection color, an interference color, etc., no two necessarily the same, and each color is a function of detection angle as well as of the spectrum of the incident light."

The passage from which this passage comes is about the complexity of assigning colors to objects; perception is more complicated than we think. The perceiver assigns color as much as the object perceived has one. As Hix writes late in the book, "Color is the comparison, not the light, / a property of the brain, not of the world" (70).

And what tests perception so much as family resemblances and differences, personal and global histories? (One of the most disturbing stories in the book has to do with an airplane seat mate who tells the artist that he killed two Russian prisoners in World War II, and has plans to kill his wife. At the poems end, she relates, "He gave me his card, so I gave him mine" (48). Petra's blonde mother dyes her hair black to match her daughter's: "The real reason is obvious to me now, / as it must have been then to everyone else / in that small town where before then she'd been blonde" (71). Skin and hair color mark the resemblances that we ascribe to family. To change them makes us more so?

The ease of telling murderous secrets on airplanes meets its absolute counterweight in Petra's family silence. We find out, over the course of the book, that her German mother, young and married to her father, had had an affair with a Turkish man, which resulted in the birth of Petra. The two fathers had agreed never to reveal the secret, and Petra was raised by her mother and German father, who moved to the United States and settled in Ohio. For 50 years, the secret was held, past the death of her German father; when it broke, she met her Turkish father and new relatives. And then sat for her portrait with Hix, who asked her the following questions (and more). Some of the questions circulate, returning later in the book.

Where did you grow up?
Did you ever suspect anything when you were growing up?
What is your favorite song?
You must have loved your dad.
Where does your name come from?
How do you feel about having new sisters?
I see now where your features come from.
What have you kept secret for years?

The necessary confusions of Petra's situation result in questions left unanswered, or questions answered in ways the reader might not expect. To the prompt, "I see now where your features come from." the response is not about the "father" (birth) but the "dad" (adoptive). "Dad loved cars, would have studied engineering, / but they could send only one son to school, so / he stayed, worked in the family bakery" (10). What we see is a photo of father and mother, who "look so happy to me here," not of the missing father, whose facial features were the subject of the prompt. The adoptive father is fascinating to me (probably for the obvious reason that I'm an adoptive parent). Not once did he break the secret to his daughter, not in anger or in jest. If he kept an enormous secret from his daughter, he also gave her his love.

He'd worn it out, the ragged cotton dress shirt
he gave me to paint in in kindergarten,
English all day in school but German at home.
I wanted to sleep in that shirt, to wear it
always, I cried when they made me take it off.
I tried to talk, but knew only how to paint
and cry. To this day a man in a white shirt
makes me speak in primary colors and tears. (6)

Her returned devotion is such that she wants to eat the shrimp her dad loves, even though it makes her violently ill. But she suspects something. The girl's inconsolability, projected onto the sound of a boy crying down the street, sounding like the train that wakes her every night, leads her to travel west and then to South America, where she learns about the light in Peru, and finally to a meeting with her "father" (as he's called, to distinguish him from "dad").

Perhaps it's Petra's age (49) when she finds out about her origins; perhaps it's the intermediary poet writing her story for or with her; perhaps it's their combined character, but the book reveals very little of the anger a reader might anticipate. There's much more sadness here, sadness that she could not have shared some of her own secrets with her dad while he was alive; sadness for her grandmother, who has forgotten everything; sadness in the note sent from her mother to her Turkish father, in which she wrote, "Her eyes speak of you." Where Hix considers the story to be "instantly mythical," I would weigh in on the side of history. What Hix has written is a lyrical history, at once personal and political (the shadows of World War II inhabit this book as surely as do personal secrets).

As I read Hix's book, I can't help but think of Dana Forsberg's work "What do we really know?" Jaimey Hamilton has written about it on the Tinfish Press website. In this work by Forsberg, herself a Korean adoptee, a forensic police artist interviews friends, acquaintances and relatives of various subjects, including Forsberg herself and Konrad Ng (better known these days as Barack Obama's brother-in-law, and also an adoptive parent). Based on their descriptions, the artist made a series of sketches of each subject. Needless to say, everything changed. Where we usually ascribe identity to image, here images are so various that each person's identity proliferates. Which takes us back to Hix's head-note about the "incident light." To which we might add Wallace Stevens's poem, "Description Without Place." "Description is / Composed of a sight indifferent to the eye," writes Stevens. The "theory of description" "matters, because everything we say / of the past is description without place, a cast / Of the imagination, made in sound" (Collected Poems 345-46).

My students quarrel with me about cliches; what if they think in them, they ask? One student wrote that writing cliches was "the cross he had to bear." I think he understood the joke, though. To see through the joke is to cast light upon the problem. To shed light on something is to enable us to see it, not as object but in its relationship to what we think is true. An on-line description of an exhibition by Petra Soesemann and Nancy Fleming adds, "Together, they endeavored to present a body of work that 're-packages' and displays ordinary expendable cardboard boxes in an unexpected light." Hix's "incident light" cannot be fixed, but sets our sights on the light, as well as the story (recycled as it is) that the light fixes itself upon. In so doing, Hix unveils some of complexities of one family's life, but also presents us with a way to write poems without committing the violence so common to lyric poems, when the poet becomes his subject, rather than entering into conversation with her.


Susan M. Schultz said...

Great article. Never bought Tim O'Brien's statement that you can extract a work from its intended meaning and the new meaning can mean more. As for naming things. Is Kafka in English the Kafka in German? I don't know. I just think Kafka in any language is still closer to Kafka than anyone else. Alexei Melnick

Jill said...

OMFG, I totally lol'ed when I read this. And then I kept reading. You always manage to put things so that I must stop and read it again and again.

"My students quarrel with me about cliches; what if they think in them, they ask? One student wrote that writing cliches was "the cross he had to bear." I think he understood the joke, though. To see through the joke is to cast light upon the problem. To shed light on something is to enable us to see it, not as object but in its relationship to what we think is true."

Susan M. Schultz said...

Thanks, Jill. Now that I think of it, Lexi's comment was to the Tyrone Williams post.