Saturday, February 21, 2004
Over the years, National Public Radio has learned that the value of using commentators with fabulous accents, whether Southern (Bailey White), European (Andrei Codrescu) or even that of a cowboy (Baxter Black, “former large animal veterinarian”), can even exceed the value of their content. I’ve sometimes wondered why poetry, with its obsession over language, hasn’t to some degree followed suit. The Projectivists developed something of a system for transcribing variances of speech to such a degree that young poets in the 1960s could associate enjambment as a device with New England in the work of Olson & Creeley, long flat lines with the prairies of the Midwest in the poetry of Paul Carroll (and to a lesser degree, sometime Chicagoan Lew Welch), a more open & informal style with the west coast (viz. Whalen, in particular). Yet I would have loved to have seen how a projectivist approach to line length & space on the page would have represented the English of a Charles Simic, for example, for whom this American tongue is a third or fourth language & often overlaid with the lilt of France & Eastern Europe. And I would love to have seen how such an approach might capture the glorious deep accents of the American south that belong to John High.
High is the author of one of the more unusual books I happen to own by an American poet, Вдоль по єє бєру – that title might not work for you if your hard drive lacks a Cyrillic font – a relatively slender selected works published in Russian translation in Moscow in 1993, using the same methodologies & cheap acidic paper that characterized “official” publications during the Soviet era. It’s just 78 pages long & includes some illustrations & photos of High with such folk as his co-translator Katya Olmsted, co-editors of Five Fingers Review, and the late Nina Iskrenko, whose work High translated into English in anthologies such as Third Wave and Crossing Centuries, the latter of which he also edited for Talisman House (which also published Bloodlines, High’s selected writings).
Now Talisman, the magazine, has a new poetic sequence of High’s, “Here,” in its 27th issue. “Here” could be a sizeable chapbook, containing roughly two dozen untitled poems or sections. High’s style is – I can’t resist this – not really a high style as such, but rather feels like a muted descendant of the New American poetry, especially of that intersection between Projectivism & the earlier Objectivists that gave rise to such poets as Michael Heller & George Economou. But my sense of High is that he gets to this place from some other, more roundabout direction.*
It hardly matters. There is some lovely, subtle work here – a precision & quietness of tone that demonstrate just how powerful the poet’s control of his or her tools can be when they’re used intelligently. One section, dedicated “To Butch (in passage),” reads as follows:
A wooden boat
of names –
the code of trees
A dying monk
in the garden zendo
Among a grove of faces
a small pine temple
a face into our faces
Who gave us these names
life, death – or
just and empty boat on the trestle
Saying goodbye of the skin
(of a man)
chocolates, cherries, fine hermitage
Be well, buddha crow!
a sun in the eye of all giving . . .
Two cups of sugar
a bowl of rice
Who is the one in the robe
when you’re gone
& where –
if not here in the cypress trees
There are enough typos in a piece I have in the same issue of Talisman to make me wary as to some of the features of this poem – that extra space between the sixth & seventh tercets or the “d” in and in just and empty in the 12th line – but those are quibbles, undecidables more or less literally. A good part of what makes this poem so intensely attractive to me is the open-ended manner in which High invokes figurative tropes – boats, codes, faces – without forcing the poem later into some misshapen caricature of closure. It’s not that High rejects closure as such – in everything is perfectly sufficient. But in leaving some threads here untied, High projects a permeable sense of the poem as object – anything in the world might enter here – that situates what has entered more comfortably than would otherwise have been the case.
This may seem like a small detail, but High’s work is full of such details, governed by a sense balance that is almost infallible. If High’s familiarity with the strategies of Projectivism don’t translate into a scoring for his particular cadences of speech, it may be that he doesn’t hear them as accents (which I’m certain is more or less true for any one of us). But it also strikes me that, unlike someone like Olson, High isn’t concerned with the phenomenological projection of Self as Hero – which may be where I get that sense of Objectivism in High’s poetry, that interest in what’s out there as all there is about which to write. So where is personality in these poems? Precisely in that sense of balance.
In this regard, one might make a closer comparison to