Reviews - May 2011
A review of '100 Notes on Violence'
One reason to be celibate is this: you can die. When you are not bound by particular loves, you are freed to love whole peoples, or places. You are freed to become a tree-sitter, say, or Óscar Romero. The great sorrow when Norman Morrison lit himself on fire outside Robert S. MacNamara’s office wasn’t the war in Vietnam, it was that his fifteen-month-old daughter had just been in his arms.
Becoming a mother or father binds us more surely to the common good, even as it tears us away. We want clean and abundant water for our children, yes, and will work for it, but if there’s just one cup left, we’re likely to steal it, too.
Julie Carr’s 100 Notes On Violence is the book of a thinker bound by particular loves. There is Ben; there is Alice; there is the baby whom her sister calls “unavailable,” “By which she seems to mean / beloved” (109). The speaker is ringed with them, “Feet like little suns,” and breathing them, “wet sky: an infant mouth on mine” (1).
Such tenderness turns Carr (who often appears in these pages autobiographically) both toward and away from her “wroth” and the world’s. “I’ve been thinking about what I can’t look at,” she writes (7). Seeing is joined to thinking throughout 100 Notes.
The idea is to write a book ‘about’ violence. ‘What kind?’ ‘The close-up kind. Because I cannot write the words ‘school shootings’ into the little search box (24).
But she does. And she looks.
Are we all voyeurs now? Who are we when we no longer acknowledge that some sights are too full of awe for any old glance to receive? Carr’s book invites these questions of how and when we look at others’ suffering. Too often, the practice seems to numb and inure:
I read my materials and I wanted
to fuck. Therein I found
the pleasure principle, therein I found
there was something new: I began to see
bodies as split
under their clothes they can be torn
like paper dolls.
There was something else: I wanted to
hold my baby so that none would
hurt her (76)
Note the hopeful line break: “I began to see.” Note its grotesque fulfillment: “bodies as split.” Note that this practice of seeing does not move the speaker beyond the natural bonds of family; she wants to protect her baby, not yours. The human mass — composed, like books or dolls, of papery stuff — is general: “they,” the “materials.” The particular is what comes into urgent relief. So Carr investigates violence close to her Colorado home, and she works to bear the stories of students and friends and neighbors. Still, there is this scavenging.
“Every researcher a predator,” Carr writes (92). She proceeds about her research (and this is a poetry of it) by essaying — like Montaigne’s, Carr’s writing is “on” something — and she proceeds by lists and loops and catalogs, elision, apostrophe, quotation, collage, and fragment. The interruptions here seem as mimetic of the life of a mother, and the nature of “googling” as they do of their splintering subject.
Much is delivered in the written equivalent of a patient’s flat affect. Notes (from, for instance, Barbara Guest, or the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System) fuel her notes. Motifs (mint leaves, notebooks, guns) reify with each repetition.
There is longing everywhere. In this note, the longing is laced with delight; it soothes like a sleep-charm:
Lie down little girl, little laugher, little clown
couchwise or in the sea
Festooned like wind by rain, like the inside of an orange
Lie down little girl, little laugher, little joke
Sometimes, as though she must usher children through a menacing place, and it is up to her to make of it a lullaby or game, Carr sings:
Never been to Texas, never been to Spain, never been to
Holland, never been to Maine (19)
Elsewhere, she reenacts fights:
Often, though, the reality recorded is one of beauty both sublime and ordinary; there are pools, and birthday parties, and kneaded bread. “Sun on rooftops. Sun in blue. Hissy happy foam” (74). But what troubles the skin of such hours, and what seems more real—the “Aryan Defense League,” the “Confederate Hammerskins,” the inventory at “Gunaccessories.com”(13, 15)—is often unreal in the old sense of reality as something experienced. When the speaker’s days are separated from her drip, she gets nervous: “Where’s my plug-in? Where’s my piece of charge? My grid?” (53)
Carr writes from a post-post-world, which is our world, where you can drive to “the Nature Store” (10). Even the good one means to do (re: buy) is violent, and violence, or the possibility of violence, constitutes an atmosphere. It is harrowing: there are the meth addict’s starving children, left to eat wallpaper glue. It is epic: “Korea, Iraq, Beirut” (95). It is domestic: “A family had a special anger room, a room to sit in and count” (94). It is done by words, and by various and inventive means like “motorcycle torture.” It is dreamt; it is funny; it is plain bad luck. Spills and mishaps result in violence. Bodies are maps of places to suffer violence, “whereas my vagina. whereas my nipples. whereas my eyes” (74). Behind each scene sits its specter: “My girl climbs a tree: a man in a car watches her” (27).
Even what would seem innocent is duplicitous. Pushing one’s face “into the air beside the river” does violence to “that broken cold air” (11). The book’s opening declaration, “It won’t snow again—it won’t,” is as much a mid-March celebration as it is our warming age’s lament (1).
Violence—like love, or God in others’ accountings—is over and in all:
what is violence? the narrowest hinge between lovers and lamps?
trashcans and trains? music and muscle? (35)
It is a hinge; it is the hinge (of tones and notes), opening only onto itself. Imagining a graceful exit by suicide, if illness were to make her a “great pain to others,” Carr is stymied because she’s read the studies of the violence this violence does to the children of the dead (101).
The completeness of this vision can be devastating and convincing, but sometimes this reader was reminded of her stint in a book group with a Marxist—was it all class struggle, really? Every last story?
Here, yes. Like suffering in the first noble truth of Buddhism, life is violence, the truth of violence, violence exists (and other translations). Wisely, Carr implicates all of us in all of it. But there seems no way to conquer violence. To try to do so is cute, or impotent, sentimental, or naïve:
Annie was a Buddhist and wouldn’t kill a bug
so the bugs killed all the plants when my mother went away (18)
We’re trapped. Prayerful hopes are likely panicked wishes: “Dear child, // simple, simple, easy, easy, quiet, quiet, still” (19). And “There is no place outside the world" (27). What light there is is “frail” and sabotaged:
A secret camera take a poll. Frail stars spill into the dark (12).
“Violence,” Carr writes, “is everywhere” (48). When, from a porch, on an early fall evening, watching their children and their children’s friends play, her husband questions her assertion, they are soon interrupted by two strangers asking, “Have you seen a body? … [I]n a garbage bag?” Carr’s repeated response is: “Go away" (48).
One response to violence is that. Another is to turn off the news.
What if a death in your neighborhood were the only gruesome story you’d heard this week? What would now be irresponsible civic behavior—what, you’re not following the floods in Pakistan?—was how people lived. And there are hopeful possibilities in being so provincial. The scale is human. You could know and name and grieve the dead. You could walk with the searchers; you could bury the flesh. But these Notes aren’t from a world that can be reeled back or turned off. And—bound by love—they aren’t from a world that is easy to leave.
Is art an antidote to the violence Carr records? Is mothering?
“There’s the useful mother and the useless one,” Carr writes (15). Most of the women on death row, she notes, are there for murdering children. In a section where Carr and the speaker are conflated we read, “Even the man who climbed into my window and came very close to raping me did not hurt me so much as my mother did when she said she hated me” (83). Mothers are not necessarily harbors, then.
So what about words? Carr has built a “cupboard” of them (103). They seem least able to overcome or escape their subject when they are most moored to common usage and what we call “sense.” They are best able to make a way to an un-obliterating hour or world, when they’ve been marred, or played prestissimo, or translated back into barbarous sound. Yes: the logic we sufferers need is sonic. The poem’s words begin to point us out and elsewhere, when, if those same words were typed into a search engine, they’d be returned with more customary suggestions or alternate spellings, and when, if heard in a business meeting, in some vastly carpeted place, they would seem like some sort of “break.”
“I want a horse and I am a horse … I want a horse and I am a horse,” Carr repeats, beautifully. “I want one and I am one … Want, am” (59).
It’s living. It’s breathing. This horse, this horse. It will not shoot you. Ride.
A review of 'Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis'
The whole world broods upon one answer.
Every living being mulls over the response.
Resting his weight on one foot
By keeping that leg straight for now, while
Slightly bending the other knee (9)
To open a book of poetry by placing the “whole world” in a subject position would seem as the most unfortunate of all possible beginnings. And, to be sure, there are many beginnings out there from which to choose. Such a choice portends just the opposite of what John Ashbery and David Shapiro call, in their blurbs of Portrait, Jullich’s “precision.” After all, one could neither begin less precisely, nor make a less decisive choice of how to begin. The “whole world” is not really a choice at all, but a delay. The opening subject holds in suspense, puts “on tenterhooks,” the matter of whether the book is to begin at all.
It is in just this way that Jullich “speaks out” (ek-phrases) from Michelangelo’s David, whose contrapposto posture he proceeds to describe (“Resting his weight on one foot”). This marble statue, as we well know, suspends the young man who would be king at the very, just the very, moment of decision: he will step toward Goliath. His first step is always just about to be: as Jullich writes in a later poem, “constantly, always ‘about to’ — about to occur” (22). David’s choice is made, but he has not begun. And so Jullich commences his precision, in a book whose language is as rooted as it is fleeting, with “bated breath” even as it is in the movement of speaking.
If Jullich’s Portrait should be called precise in its diction, its precision lies in its continuous redundancy. The tautology of the book’s opening two lines are, for a third time, recapitulated two stanzas later: “There’s no one who doesn’t ponder that antiphon” (9). This technique of rephrasing runs through the entirety of the book, inverting the poet’s range of selection into a progression down the page. At times, the reader will need to wait for pages to reach a line’s antiphon, as with the description of David given in the second stanza of “Tenterhooks”:
His hips and legs are turned
In a different direction from that of
His shoulders and head. (9)
These lines are then called back to twenty pages later in “Chi con la vista ancide I circustanti”:
The horizon line of his pelvis is
Angled against the sum of his collarbone. (30)
By presenting the range of selection from which he has to choose and refusing to make that selection, Jullich reformulates precision as excess. In this excessive diction, Jullich alludes to the tautological praises of the Davidic psalms, as in Psalm 117:
Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Give Glory, all you peoples!
The Lord’s love for us is strong;
The Lord is faithful forever.
Here David’s redundancy constitutes an offering of the excessive expenditure of his speech, wherein voice becomes the poet’s sacrifice (“let my prayer be like incense”); it also exemplifies that gratuitous naming which is to be found around any object of affection. When Jullich takes the marbled David as his object, he erects his redundancies as columns, surrounding the artificial body in a verbal “loggia” (“In Florence they would build an entire / loggia around him, if he were made of marble”). In so doing, he demonstrates the necessity of the artificial, the denaturalized, and the “masked” as the basis of discourse as well as desire.
The redundancy of the human body marks a central concern in Jullich’s Portrait. And whereas sculpture can present in art a one-to-one relationship to the human body, this human body will always appear in poetry as a circumlocution. Jullich powerfully captures the tension wherein the body will at once be poetry’s origin and its secret. Jullich’s preoccupation with the articulations of the body, both in terms of its anatomy and its movement, courts an object whose arrival is as necessary as it is impossible. In “Terpischore,” titled after the muse of lyric poetry and dancing, Jullich obsessively phrases the contours of the “kinetic” human foot as though, with enough words, a real foot may alchemically appear:
the arch of the foot — might never equal
the sole of the foot, its heel,
in being the first body part put down
onto earth since time immemorial —
as we say “limb” for both tree branch and leg.
The bedroom slippers wait for the toes, the ball
of the foot descending off the edge
of the mattress, a wax figure melting. (16)
And just as we say a doubled word in “limb,” so too Terpsichore’s Greek spoke a doubled melos, which meant both “limb” and “song.” This derivation of poetry from the parts of the body (e.g. dactyl, “finger”) is never beyond Jullich’s attention. But in focusing not upon the animated body as much as on the frozen, mimetic body of art, Jullich interestingly questions whether the de-melodized, written text must likewise derive from a secondary, static body.
The disease of roots — the foot having to “plant” itself as a limb, which seems altogether gratuitous to the human person — is for Jullich as much an embarrassment to the body as it has become to the poet. And what was once the Adamic shame of genitalia is instead transferred onto the concupiscent desires of the foot:
A carpet covers a floor as if it were obscene
pornographic floorboards;--every rug a fig leaf (16)
Indeed, the real scandal of Michelangelo’s David is not that the biblical hero is stripped naked, but that his foot should still rest on the ground. So too while reading through Portrait, I am struck with unease, scandalized even, by the over-groundedness that indicates over-determined poetic speech. And it is just this determinedness of his language, his historical mythology, his haunting ancestrality, that Jullich converts into kinetic motion. For just as the moving foot must be the planted foot, so too the rooted word must be the moving, the intractably moving, word.
An orangutan transfiguration — a pygmy synonym
For the handcuffs and chains
Of their gender, race age, sexual orientation, would
Stop the from growing downward, tentacles of roots (12)
The pygmy synonym incapacitates the poet by the monstrous specter of its independent volition, establishing roots where he wishes he had none. The terror, which is also the rapture, of confronting the self-moving creation (we cannot help but remember) is just the fortune of mythology’s most famous pygmy, Pygmalion, whose affection for his own marble statue brought it to motion before him.
Jullich’s ability to invoke and be laid subject to the uncanny motion of his own poems result in a work that is radically punctual and postponed; it has been made, but is always about begin. The reader will continually wait for his poems to go one way or another, observing their kinetic rest, left standing “for now.”
Michael Gottlieb and the praxis of essay
Are there passages I have marked, underlined, annotated, or starred in Memoir and Essay to return to, to quote, to point out to others? Insofar as the narrative evidences personal knowledge and judgment regarding others whom I have known and cared about, I want to hold it and let go of it at the same time, I want to know and to forget. Insofar as the narrative lets me know about the life, career, thoughts, and feelings of Michael Gottlieb, whom I have known for over 30 years but never as well as I’d have liked to, I want to retain everything.
Author Michael Gottlieb (left) and reviewer Steve Benson.
Memoir and Essay breaks into two pieces, one of which is incontestable — “The Empire City” is a narrative of his life in New York over many years, a life with which I was only occasionally and marginally acquainted — and another that provokes argument at will — “Jobs of the Poets” is a philosophical and social inquiry regarding matters pertinent to any writers who might choose to remain economically viable as persons in American culture while continuing to write and seek readers, especially if their work is not intended for mainstream marketing.
Having written that, I then did begin to write in the margins and underline and draw arrows in the text of the remaining fifteen pages I hadn’t yet read. Most of the book I’ve read last thing at night in bed, close to sleep, but the last part I read in early afternoon in the shade of a huge maple, my son’s terrier leashed to one leg of my wooden chair, with the pencil. The book works either way. It’s a “must-read.” You don’t have to read it, but I was glad I had put everything else aside to read it first.
The “essay” comes second, after the “memoir,” and bears no ostensible relation to it, although they share concerns with the interface of the problem of a remunerative career and the development and sustaining of a poet’s life and practice. The “essay” is written in numbered sections. Each section, about one page long, begins with a question or set of questions in italics, and then these are responded to by discussion that typically launches other, related questions.
Like the “memoir,” the “essay” is what it says it is; the memoir is obviously a memoir, and the essay is, exactly, an essaie — a trial of various concerns and ideas, elaborated and interrogated and brought to judgment, although for the most part the matters are not ultimately decided.
The “memoir” and the “essay” are both written in pieces that could have found a different sequence but this sequence works well, and both are written in a style that, to my mind, suggests that the writer is not looking back but focusing on what he is trying to say, so that the writing seems to me unstudied and spontaneous, at times garrulous or inexact or roundabout but authentically presentational and aiming toward candor and justice. Notes at the end of each of these two parts indicate who read and commented on the manuscript prior to final edits, and nevertheless the writing is marked by occasional errors in idiom or punctuation that can startle a former proofreader like me but that also mark the text with the materiality of an event in one life, putting something down on paper, however mediated by technology and the counsel of friends.
During the year that feels like ten years, or the ten years that feel like one, that have just passed, I’ve written and published a book made mostly of works entirely in the interrogative, as is much of “essay,” and I’ve written and published dozens of pages of memoirs relating to my formative years as a Language poet in an urban culture shared with other Language poets, so I am interested in what Michael has attempted and what he has come up with in this work at hand. I also prepared and presented a lengthy public talk about careers in the arts back in 1978, in the city I lived in with the other Language poets, which a few years ago I presented online in audio with transcript, notes, and a handful of the completed questionnaires that I circulated as research at the time. So Michael’s way of working and his concerns here have been on my mind, though I had not read any of this work before its publication.
I had been busy with that writing and presenting, with a full-time job and developing family, with marginalized activities like exercise, peace-and-justice work, and meditation, and I hadn’t gotten around to reading this work of Michael’s in draft form, though I could have. How other responsibilities interact with what one takes to be one’s responsibilities as a writer of poetry is a major issue in Michael’s book; it circulates through and ultimately determines the arc of the “memoir,” even more than do the emergence and atomization of the New York Language school or the shifting ethos and demographics of the city itself, and it is the urgent concern of the “essay.”
Although this is an engaging and intriguing narrative to read for tactfully lancing vignettes about prominent figures in that group of writers, it is not primarily about them but about choices made, fallen into, and discovered by a young man no longer a boy and becoming a writer. Its emphasis is on how an unanticipated set of possibilities discovered in some printed matter and the persons coordinating it provoked a re-set of life priorities, and the enthusiastic, diffident, capricious, and insidious ways that initiation played out in this person’s career as a resident of particular homes and neighborhoods, as a writer, as a lover of other persons, and as a participant in the life that art takes on in New York City.
Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education are forebears Michael doesn’t try to emulate but must have learned from. His approach is contemporary, casting off each literary posture when it does not eschew them altogether. His “memoir” is not set in the twenty-first century but makes a palpable effort to address its reader within these times, while conscious of their difference from the 1970s, in which most of the action takes place. It will interest all those who want to think about how these things work and don’t, and how their functions and dysfunctions may change over time.
The reader will likely think about many things that are not on the page, including concerns of impoverished and unemployed people, people of other countries and social ecologies, women and minorities, who are largely absent from these pages. The reader will also ricochet from the page toward reflections on her or his own experience, his or her ways of handling ethical problems, her or his rationalizations and doubts and reconciliations with the choices he or she has made. The text as presented is in no way authoritative, except in that only Michael could have written it; the reader will find much to complain of, to second-guess, to object to, and to regret.
I enjoyed the qualities of the writing even while I edited them and adjusted them in my mind, and I felt warmly engaged and compelled and at times thrilled by the narrative, in my identifications and differentiations from the speaking mind and the life detailed. The book appears written from the vantage point of appreciation of the possibilities of such a participatory reading, and to invite analogous revelations from others of their experiences of discovering, exploring and surviving alternative poetry scenes.
The value of its publication lies in its potential to enter into and encourage a discussion, the collective debate and interrogation that is more than ever underway within the larger-than-Language contemporary poetry community, concerning the social praxis around poetry and the implications of socially constructed ideas of community, systems of behavior, organizations of labor, analyses of linkage, options within interdependence, and evaluations of responsibility. These concerns are argued here in the representation of an individual life replete with wishful hopes and nagging misgivings that confront one another unforgivingly to generate more than the sum of their parts.
A review of 'Visiting Wallace'
Visiting Wallace, edited by Dennis Barone and James Finnegan with a foreword by Alan Filreis, is presented as a collection of seventy-seven poems “inspired by the life and work of Wallace Stevens.” That’s problematic, because Stevens mostly hid his life in his work. An elegy by John Berryman included in the book puts the matter this way: “Ah ha & he crowed good. / That funny money-man. / Mutter we all must as well as we can. / He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s / wits, though, with an odd // … something … something … not there in his flourishing art” (10). Henry’s judgment is the greatest strength of this book: criticism, regularly hedged and guarded, can benefit from the candor that writing a poem often fosters. I share Henry’s mixture of wonder and suspicion at Stevens’ sustained posture “that he does not wound.”
More than that, though, I appreciate the way that Berryman and a few others make demands on Stevens that scholars can’t and critics mostly don’t, yet. Adrienne Rich’s “Long after Stevens” argues with the coldness of “The Snow Man” — Rich gives an image of a “locomotive pushing through snow in the mountains” and describes a landscape in which “snow defies the redefinition // of poetry” in which a woman gets down from the train to “lick snow from bare cupped hands,” finding herself “searching toward a foreign tongue” (109). The poem takes seriously “the nothing that is” of Stevens’s poem. Rich gives it its place and continues searching, too intensely experiencing her relation to the earth to accept alienation as wisdom.
Finnegan’s “At the Casa Marina” and Edward Hirsch’s “At the Grave of Wallace Stevens” also seem to me to explore the limits of the way Stevens used poetry as a hiding place, in reflections on death. There’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with mortality in these poems, but also with Stevens on mortality. Finnegan tests the claim of “Sunday Morning” — “death is the mother of beauty” — and Hirsch tests the “distance” of Stevens’s later poem “Of Mere Being.” They’re poems that engage with some of the disquieting aspects of life that are, at most, eerily muted in Stevens’ work.
If the strength of the book is its critical exploration of Stevens as a poet of experience, what should one call its approach to Stevens as a philosophical poet? Inevitable and mostly unfortunate. Martha Ronk, Charles Wright, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer and Forrest Gander pay a visit, each of them with big-idea poems. Stevens’s philosophical poems — and that probably means all of them — sometimes seem like they are written on mirrors, so strangely do they situate depth. With the exception of Howe, the admirable and skilled philosophical poets appearing in this collection seem too serious for the occasion. One asks oneself the purpose of their visit.
Inside-jokey poems abound, including John Ashbery’s spoof-homage, “Some Trees,” and Carl Martin’s “No Sop, No Possum, No Jive,” Jeremy Over’s “A Poem Is a Pheasant,” and Mark DeFoe’s “Thirteen Ways of Eradicating Blackbirds.” The humor is not unsettling — even DeFoe’s poem uses humor mostly as charm — and the poems establish a sense of community that might be called familial: comfortable and unwilled.
That’s also problematic about the book. Stevens’s social world was small, and the social world of his poems can be worse than small. Stevens’s “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” is a troubling poem for a lover of his work — perhaps too troubling to be framed as a matter for criticism to approach alone. But there’s no mention of that poem here. So I propose an un-neighborly visit.
A review of 'A Book of Unknowing'
The goal of a quest is often return: in John High’s A Book of Unknowing, a mute girl and a one-eyed boy move through a war-marked landscape, orphaned and adopted and orphaned anew. They seek to return not to pre-lapsarian purity but to the vivid articulation of “a brilliance of green across meadow in this / day when we find so much arrangement in myriad trees. Coming to terms with fine / bladed yellow grass” (99). That is, aware that “in order / to get out we have to go through / language,” the characters in High’s poetic sequence “come to terms” with the hardy arrangements underlying innocence and loss. Traveling the “wounded way / back to our beginning” (116), they return to an advanced childhood in which they parent themselves and forgive all, having found “how / a question might endure alive internal workings / in mutual air moving / toward a quiet believing and awe” (111).
This arrival is gorgeous, paradisiacal without the Billy Graham bromides of Beatrice browbeating Dante and that pilgrim’s attendant forgetting of earth. Rather, this arrival remains committed to the world High has been at pains to show, in which “sometimes what / we live in order to affirm / a truth” brings us ashore with scarred clarity. The book’s singular language permits its culminating vision, and High’s breathless neuro-cinematic syntax unifies his story and ideas. Yet the ambitious content at which High arrives is more than a linguistic effect: it shows a place not just made of the book’s guiding questions but made for them to continue in, allowing his readers, as well as his characters, to recover and retain “a sense of awe & condolence” (129). This sense makes the larger questions one may have about poems — why even read? what do you do upon finishing a thrilling volume? — part of the work; it investigates them expansively rather than whittling them away in a perfection of posture. As a result, as in this untitled verse from A Book of Unknowing’s final sequence, High’s lines take on cosmological and moral significance:
Where do we go now the fisher boy
asks looking into a blue winter horizon
rising around wooded vessels moored
over waning flashlights if you have come
this far why stop now the monk says
wings flapping first snow over wing
a woman beside me laughs as the boy
casts nets off a dock drinking coca
cola cormorant flock around him nothing
left to prove no need for approval only
coming back to where we are
touching fingers and reeds as I see her bend
again kiss a scar on his left eye reaching
inside & past all reckon & shame (115)
Pound’s “make it new” may be the most misconstrued statement in poetic history — he was concerned with continuance, not blithe novelty — but High’s “where do we go now” and “if you have come / this far why stop now” take up its truer sense. If a poem, or spiritual journey, culminates because one has moved mindfully through the things of the world, one undercuts that culmination by subsequently turning from those things; you can’t treat emptiness as a view without continually constructing its frame. Thus, the “unknowing” High arrives at knows well the questions and motives it is made of. In this passage, realization does not stop perception but leads it through memory (“again”) to a further moral possibility: the potential loss of shame.
High’s “small insistence” (137) on the ongoingness at the heart of all arrival super-saturates A Book of Unknowing. The moral and philosophical vision he insists upon is “clear” with the true roots of the word — not “easily understood,” but “luminous, bright” and “to summon or call.” I love this book for reminding me that poetry does not need to be flatly wise or flatly wild but can accommodate the luminous summons of “a woman tying her / tennis shoes in a make-believe diary” (65) and of “a boy hungry / for cake & pineapple” who sees in his companion “a 1000 years / of sorrow already ended in / her touch of a finger” (77). The vision, here, sees past itself by the light it makes.
A sense of being reminded — that mental return — comes over A Book of Unknowing’s characters as well, enriching their experiences of the present. Sometimes, these reminders come through refrain: early in the book, in a passage that foresees war’s effects in its earliest tidings, High reports, “the TV is alive he shouted out the window / dying in the moment of the images before war / & the girl out there already peeing in an alley” (33). Later, “the mute girl mouths in an alley” (122) and we recall her earlier posture and all that has happened since. Elsewhere, High sows reminders through motifs that, in their use of character and place, recall Nathaniel Mackey’s worlds of displacement and migration. High, though, typically stays more closely with his emblematic figures, for whom there is a “hum breaking thru the poverty / Once settled in the bone of a gone nation” (9). His iconic motifs — pelicans; monks; frogs; Paul Celan, occasionally — crop up in the poems’ continuous present. Their recurrences feel more like memory than outright interruptions, however, because the present adapts around them, becoming larger. High conveys this adaptation through syntax that swells as it lists, making fruitful use of ambiguous but distinct capitalization and punctuation:
As if in an old movie only
the actors ourselves & this
Miraculous set of cliffs who
Could ever unrepresent the
Bell chiming the leaves on
shore the girl in her plaid
Skirt as turtles & pelicans
Gather around her language
forgets itself Celan sips on
a brandy looking out the café (8)
By moving in and out of such lists, High suspends the reader’s knowledge (and perhaps knowledge is an attempt to systematically “unrepresent” the world, to sift it into human sense?) of what is another item in the sequence and what is the beginning of an off-shooting phrase, like the one above beginning “as turtles.” This technique is especially poignant when a long run settles in tenderness, reminding us that the world can arrive there as well, even as the momentum of arrival skids: “One tall sycamore loomed a sparrow lighted / The first utterances the boy read aloud / I love you.” Characteristically, High does not conclude there but just pauses a moment before showing the continuing world. This world now seems changed by the realization of love, so that the resulting “finely tuned” images enlarge human emotion, even if they do not stop for it: “All these figs & mustard seeds / Arising around us in finely-tuned grass” (96). Juxtaposition seems the wrong word for High’s mingling of emotion, memory, and perception, perhaps because language leaves traces more continuous than Eisenstein’s images could, letting High move swiftly among setting, character, and plot. It shows that the possibilities for narrative in verse extend beyond the sturdy detailing of posed moments or plodding gestures at epic. Instead, High mobilizes the elements of story, as though dangling them from a mobile he then spins. You can feel his fondness for the characters and you can also feel as the characters do:
The child reading an autobiography
outside the marquee where in another
city she studies foreign films
flickering across a white screen this
movement located outside time & the
sidewalk cold on her legs tonight a
manuscript (the woman had found it for
her) looking back in her eyes a face
missing all but the last pages of a first
kiss the girl recognizing there a
blossoming of her own life & evening
stars as migratory owls appear above
the theatre ants & grasshoppers
moving south as winter again approaches
the boy walking out of the deserted
storefront now holding a piece of
looted film called Rublev of an icon
painter in the 15th century who he
tells her once saved his life at the movies (58)
Frequently, High orients readers to the wide-ranging present with overt references to vision, allowing us to witness the action rather than decipher it. In this complexly staged passage, for example, High tells us our relation to the whirlwind, bringing us into the moment “where we are seeing”:
Today in a rose bush
& an insight of blighted rain, thrush in
marsh, small feet as a child
walks further & despair, the skin
Of it, a father leaving his peers for war in a
History obliterated now & she laughs & cows
Come forth where we are seeing her (88)
These overt moments of “seeing” function like the ampersands in the passage above: they create clear relationships, so that walking and despair meet like the woman and the cows do. At times, these relationships nest. Here, we see the man because of the monk’s “looking,” the boy because of the woman “who saw,” the monk and the man because of the barn, and the entire scene by the narrator’s interjection:
bring us cookies a monk said looking back
at a man whose own name forgotten in these
last hours autumn & the woman who saw a boy’s tall
figure by arcade lights after many years silent
absence yet now a man & monk talking yes
by a barn we came toward late at night dreaming
rivers & a set of tracks almost empty —
still we saw you (11)
This final line returns us to the narrator’s orienting perspective, much as the boy “after many years silent” returns “yet now a man,” leaving tracks he seems to barely fill even though they are his own.
It would be difficult to film those “almost empty” tracks. Yet the pacing of phrases in A Book of Unknowing suggests a camera drifting into and out of and through the eye. High encourages these cinematic associations with many references to film. His poems suggest that cinema can be a training ground for reading complex linguistic landscapes and for understanding individual experience, as it is for the girl who recognizes a first kiss in the passage quoted above. This instructional dimension — the viewer learns from moviegoing, realizing learning is a kind of recognizing (“wow this is you” ), then reenters the migratory world — echoes the overarching philosophy in High’s writing. The quest returns, we see. In which the quest is return.
But what we see when we meet “in another film” (108) can also be horrifying revision, as when High describes a film of a child’s rape and tells us the “Narrator fell back without / Sound for what is there anyone / Can ever say in the face of / Such beauty as hers” (73). And yet, it is this terrible beauty that allows the audience and narrator to grasp individual life which one page earlier was lost among corpses “stacked randomly” (72). Film may make “shades of history” (108) disappear, but it can also give them new life, changed by preservation to look back at us with a “necessity / of theory & love” (64) in the face of suffering.
When the Narrator falls silent, High gives us language of the interior that functions as “an imaginary eye,” letting us “myth it together” (124) despite the limits of perception and knowledge. For the figure of the one-eyed boy, language becomes a second eye, providing dimension; language returns us to our senses, even obstructed ones. Because someone must continue speaking for words to continue perceiving, language demands we go on, even if “the best / antidote is nobody to be Nobody / just to live & walk.” But the next moment is already upon us: that evocation of the good life, of an arrival into non-being, immediately also includes “indistinguishable / bombs exploding around my girlfriend” who is then immediately “laughing on a corner near the bar & dropping / her purse” (122). The language of the interior keeps us from asking what is the present by insisting that we must respond to a larger present and what it asks of us:
cry & caterpillars the figs & nettles
look you become a child
she shouts now running toward
sounds from books & love
an empty field where a
boy spots a horse waiting he
thinks to carry all the war’s dead home (98)
We return, thus, to “another & same place / passing cobblestones & nursery rhymes,” thoroughly composed by the “call of leaves & trees / & olives & peaches,” like lips we can hear moving before we can comprehend their words or even read them in silence (136).