Book Review

What does it mean to be angry, to be an American? Do the two share an inextricable link? These questions, among others, foment the fodder for H. L. Hix’s twelfth book of poems, American Anger, a brash, combative collection unflinching in form and trajectory and its commitment to socio-political discourse. Over the book’s ten sections Hix employs a slew of voices to do his bidding: some destitute and despondent, others liquored-up and looking to fight. Melding fictive personas with case study anecdotes (as cited in the book’s seventeen-page “Works Cited” list), the speakers we encounter are not the distant fabrications we so wish they were. Instead, they appear as the “angry woman in her housecoat shouting / at her neighbor not to shovel his drive so damned early,” or the owner of the “Custom GTO, factory four speed, Liberty blue . . . outta my way, motherfucker.” Simply put, this book illuminates the faces and reifies the grouses of the working class—those folks we know and don’t, William Carlos Williams’s “pure products of America.” From tracing the country’s colonialist roots to exposing the hypocrisies embedded in state and federal governing, Hix’s stark and violent meditations propose that while our days may vary in content and worldview, we are “happiest (who is not?) when angry, angry, angry.”

Released in early 2016, American Anger boasts numerous prescient poems concerning the nation’s current state of affairs, most notably its citizens’ widening ideological split: blue and red. Hix, a philosopher and professor at the University of Wyoming, is no stranger to this schism. In fact, if the University of Wyoming strikes a chord, perhaps it is due to the Matthew Shepard incident, wherein Shepard, an openly gay student there, was beaten to death by Laramie locals in 1998. Although American Anger does not pivot solely around this episode, Hix, at several points in the book (in satirized “About the Author” blurbs), takes jabs at the inability of his state and university to unequivocally promote a progressive agenda:

H. L. Hix lives in a state that, although in it occurred a murder notorious enough that the federal Hate Crime Prevention Act bears its victim’s name, remains one of the five states in the union with no state hate-crime legislation.

And two sections later:

H. L. Hix teaches at a university whose library owns the same number of copies of each Harry Potter book as it owns of a book by one of its own faculty members about the murder of one of its own students.

By chiding the university and its failure to completely disavow hate, Hix, who stays mostly out of the way in terms of revealing his naked agenda, affirms that even he, the person responsible for cataloguing anger, is not immune to feelings of such—despite when used productively. That said, the poet owns his anger toward anger and applies it in broad strokes throughout the book. In the “Aggression Cues” section, Hix assumes the voices of bewildered small town dwellers, right-wing gun slingers, and an embittered, off-color version of himself. From this amalgam of speakers, we are gifted several poems composed solely of axioms—dark, of course, and spun on their heads—including: “Every little fit helps”; “First aggressions last longest”; “Fortune favors the well-armed”; and, to the tune of Frost, “Good shotguns make good neighbors.” In the following portion of “Aggression Cue 11: The stationing of troops,” Hix dissects a nation-favorite buzzword, highlighting the contradictions associated with and embedded in our military mindset:

Today we read from the cultural script called Honor.
Against any threat, I’d risk my life to defend yours,
but insult my mother and I’ll kill you without remorse.
Only my readiness for both validates your trust.
Count on me no matter what, but don’t tick me off.

The poet’s mordant sense of humor runs roughshod over this collection. How else to make sense of a world in which “anger is a function of the whole person, the whole community”? Thus, it comes as no surprise that a majority of the fights Hix picks revolve around those aspects of American culture which he believes contribute heavily to enmity—namely, its obsession with weapons. Consider the first stanza of “Anger as animus:”:

Firearms: physical realities, machines that propel bullets,
material objects that can be bought and sold, carried and fired.
Guns: totemic symbols, objects of fantasy,
ideas that can be imagined and desired.
This distinction shows us it’s not firearms
we argue over: no one legislates for or against staplers,
or lobbies for or against toothpick dispensers . . .
We don’t care about firearms, we care about guns.

What makes this piece satisfying and rhetorically successful extends beyond Hix’s diction and wit; what flatters is the poet’s unerring command over his subject matter. This poem, as well as others comprising “The Anger Construct,” relies as heavily on research and semiotics as it does pathos, adding nuance to this brand of protest. That said, poets do not necessarily need to lean on academic rigor to expound an argument. Hix, however, proves it helps. One of the section’s denser pieces, “Anger as response:” reads:

Helen Block Lewis’s shame-rage theory and Paul Gilbert’s
social rank theory concur in describing anger as a defensive action.
In the one, self-concept concerns motivate anger;
In the other, concerns over status. Lewis: feelings of shame
may instigate seething, hostile anger, a humiliated fury. Gilbert:
shame may provoke assertion of status by strategic declaration
of agency and power through anger and aggression . . .
Both models describe anger as a response
to threats to ego and rank, not the result
merely of an angry temperament.

By way of reference to these theories and others, Hix dices through anger with an etiological scalpel, applying aspects of the social sciences to his hypotheses: Does anger develop over time, like a taste for wine? Or is it lodged in our bones, an innate disposition? That American Anger seeks and provides these answers solidifies it as both a formidable work of art and a verifiable piece of protest.

About the Reviewer

Scott Wordsman’s poems have appeared in THRUSH, Forklift/Ohio, Switchback, Slipstream, and elsewhere. He has received nominations for Best of the Net and Best New Poets. Scott lives in Jersey City and teaches English at William Paterson University.