On returning

A review of 'A Book of Unknowing'

A Book of Unknowing

A Book of Unknowing

by John High

Talisman House 2010, 137 pages, $17.95 ISBN 9781584980681

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” [27]), 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).