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).