A Map of the Lost World

By Rick Hilles


University of Pittsburgh Press
January 2012


Reviewed by Alex Oxner


Stonington Harbor: now a pulsating roofside
Shingled in mirrors, now paparazzi flashes,
Or a shimmying rhinestone dress so alluring
One forgets what lies beyond this brightness.
Inscrutable portents of another early September:
A "loonie" is now more stable than the dollar;
In a German spa town miles of SS secrets
Still elude public scrutiny—now sixty-plus years.

(How long it takes to unfurl one scroll of History.)

So begins our journey into Rick Hilles's A Map of the Lost World. Hilles's poetry is a combination of the tumultuous history of our world and the future that we are actually conjuring in the present. This collection reads like a manual for (re)discovery, inviting us to chase not the past, but the conflicted act of remembrance. It instructs us not only to evoke memories, but to ache.

Hilles's overtly realistic language is ruptured by his incorporation of supernatural elements. These moments instigate varied degrees of disturbance as they range from genuine ghostly manifestations to kitsch symbols of the occult, often within the span of only two or three lines. In "Nights & Days of 2007: Autumn" he writes, "Before setting it mouth down on a Ouija board / Whose ghost-galleon absinthe-glow rides the dark. / Our first disembodied parlor guest arrives." Hilles conceives the spirit or ghost of his college friend, Jason Greer, dismantling the life/death binary and constructing a benign haunting. However, though readers rely on the Jason figure to learn about the "past" that constitutes the Lost World, Hilles does not posit an ideal experience that exists beyond life. He refuses teleologies and resists traditionally accepted definitions of material or temporal space. Writing in a definitively realistic mode would deprive Hilles of too much—he exposes in the spiritual realm a conflation of past, present, and future, conceiving death as a form of life.

Indeed, Hilles's friend, Jason, is a recurring character in this volume and serves as a unifying device; in him, we discover ourselves. Jason also spurs our author along even after death. He is a retrospective championing influence, yet his spectral appearances disorient the reader, paralleling the disillusionment intrinsic to the experience of merely being human. But Hilles's recollections do not only extend to his personal past; rather, they inform one another, generating a broader historical reflection. In "Nights & Days of 2007: Autumn," while describing a dark scene in Warsaw, Hilles writes, "On the glow-in-the-dark board, echo-locating / A message spelled-out by, if not with, our hands. / 'My generation was devoured by History.'" On the adjacent page, but in a different section of this 10-part poem, Hilles observes, "Fine as the motes of old skin tumbling in sunlight, / The blizzard of the past lit up in rooms like shooting stars / Swirling constellations. All of which we are." Hilles's juxtaposition of Warsaw with a tragedy of our own time (September 11) operates as a reclamation of the past: after all, the past offers us beauty and, more importantly, a varied perspective or second-sight.

Throughout A Map of the Lost World, readers will discover instances of repetition or multiple iterations of single poetic lines or ideas. In "The Red Scarf & the Black Briefcase," Hilles writes, "one person, one life—could help set another / world within our world in motion." And then, in "From Three Words of a Magnetic Poetry Set Found Caked in Dirt Beneath James Merrill's Last Refrigerator," he continues this line of thought: "in a heart exposed, as if by touch alone, one / person, one life, might keep the world in motion."

The poems respond to each other, and the recurring symbols—a red scarf, a Ouija board, Jason—form a comprehensive story in a poetry volume which seems to resist traditional narrative. Though we seem to travel thousands of miles with each turn of the page, we may continually find ourselves in an uncomfortable, but familiar territory. As in a dream, we are reminded what an extraordinary world we may have left, but what a strange and remarkable one we have (re)awakened in.

Hilles's poems are lengthy, often spanning five or more pages as they are broken into multiple sections. The volume itself is separated into five numbered sections, but these divisions do not rupture the movement he is creating between each poem. As his form rarely varies from section to section, Hilles's longer poems propel us forward in a continuous moment—his fractures afford readers an inadequate respite. In "A Map of the Lost World," Hilles writes, "Setting off the alarm—and shoots to death / A Museum guard. Later, in his Annapolis home, / Feds find his weapons cache and oils paints." A pronounced break precedes the next lines: "Once inside, the Museum of Remembrance / Archivist leads me through the new display." His stanzas are consistent and his form somewhat invariable, yet the poems' contents resist such regularity. Hilles's employment of longer poems makes the collection read like course units in a history textbook, but the 'past' he creates is a slippery one. It merges with the present and the future, and so cannot be categorized or parceled out. The final section contains a single poem, "Larry Levis in Provincetown," composed of consistent two-line stanzas. He reassures us: "you'll be happy / to know that our work continues, as before, in Death." His simplicity at this stage in the work is startling. The poem spans only two pages, and readers look closer, wondering what they may have missed. We focus most heavily on this poem, an endpoint. However, though looking to an end seems contradictory in this retrospective collection, the sensation of forgetfulness serves to reinforce Hilles's portrayal of remembrance as an imperfect act.

He includes a variety of epigraphs, connecting his own words to a seemingly disparate context. Hilles draws upon tradition, making multiple references to Keats, for example, but he does not relegate the past to either Romantic ideals or regurgitations of static past experiences. In the final section of "Nights & Days of 2007: Autumn," Hilles imparts the main thrust of this volume:

Our work here, such as it is, will soon be done.
What we take with us, in part, is what we leave
Behind, what we imbue any space we really inhabit
And fill with our anxious hope.

His world revels in its perpetual motion. Hilles cannot save us from grief or loss with his poetry; he can only offer an adequate account of it from which we cannot turn away. In his recitation, or perhaps resuscitation, of personal, extant, and cultural histories, Hilles creates a world which is not subject to eternity, but which encompasses it.