your wilderness & mine by David Highsmith
(Blazevox, Buffalo, New York, 2009)
Turn me loose set me free
somewhere in the middle of Montana
give me all I’ve got coming to me
- Merle Haggard
Everybody needs the company of others. Poets, often despite themselves, are social beasts; even in hate seeking the consistent comfort of care. We need each other to behave according to expectations imposed by rules of our common ends, yet what’s in common often does not extend past the bare minimum of social surfaces. Bound by our mutual desire to be accepted by the group we attempt to enwrap others within restrictions we pile upon ourselves. When the poem doesn’t achieve its own standard, developing its own environment beyond such arbitrary, irresolute restrictions it is of little use aside from continuing the constant prattle of regularity one finds round any office water cooler or hollered about down at the local schoolyard.
What is wanted is work that disappears into itself, resistant to becoming tangled in fear of being misunderstood; denied; withheld. Such stuff struts without acknowledging self-awareness, there is no singular individual will clearly at work behind its moves. The reader is challenged against her expectations by poetry of this order. “No ego pumping here” reads the posting. Those looking for group identity in poetry by which to propel a comfort and acceptance of and for themselves often fail recognize poetry of such order.
David Highsmith writes poems from out the natural circumstances of which they arise, not worrying whether to follow any ‘correct’ set of rules to match expectations of some supposed audience. There’s generous looseness in the breadth offered up in this latest collection. Opening with the 75 haiku-like sections of the sequential long poem “October Fires” where each numbered verse stands equally well alone as together, meditative and crisply honed:
go shopping, body, teach us
in our very legs
your innocent character
and closing with the probing rhythmic prose of “Something You Believe In”:
Poetry, too, says something you believe in. It says your taste is true, that truth is either a private or a public matter, that matter is either incandescent or somewhat murky, that mute rage is both idle and reputable. The poet knows that rain is falling, and demonstrates the skill to navigate within a storm, between the worlds of sleep and those of copper wire. What wonders is both wonderful and offensive. The poem advances its formation, its armor, and its weaponry. The poem voices the sound of rubber chicken, of novelty lost. Its sound is a deep hacking cough from within a tomb. Within a tomb, a mummy wonders about snipers, sit-ups, and clean sheets. These are the concerns of poetry, its linen wrapping. Poetry homogenizes and elucidates our bother, our dull routine, noxious and dead to honor. It wonders at parts of speech, sourdough, hearts, shellac, tremors, rumbles, stingrays, the possibility of love and the impossibility of satisfaction. It is asphalt and cold to touch. It is the surface upon which we hope to move. It dreams what you dream, that a verbal city is loot for the taking. Whatever knows you in a poem knows you better than you know yourself, it knows that the whole is true, that time is the intangible squeeze, Beatrice on the Brooklyn bridge.
Highsmith centers the moment of writing exact in extraction of its sources. This is no small theatre of spectacle. Beatrice takes Dante off of Virgil’s crude, beautiful hands (he is, after all, “pagan”) and ushers him into the daunting vision of the uppermost glory of the unfolding rose of light. What may not be witnessed in this life, Dante records in as inhuman ability as allowed. The image her appearance makes here is not mistaken. She stands forth on Hart Crane’s symbolic harp, above Whitman’s waters beacon to the desire that the words of the poem have not missed the mark.
Throughout the collection, Highsmith advantageously scatters a variety of approaches to the poem. There is a sustained exploration of couplets, from the zany comic adventure of “xanadu”:
We know no grief or pain, it’s another day
In Xanadu & Scooby Doo, I think of you
and the Dadaist leaning Americana of “blue ridge shuffle” with its finalizing “as if a cat had anything to do with it” humors, to the lengthy “inbound volume” with its questionings made to a possible addressee:
won’t you be my chocolate bunny, won’t you be my
national park, bleak reprieve leads into March
Highsmith aptly demonstrates comfort moving from such fringey, stylistically jumpy linguistic play within the line to a more accepted “workshop” standard conception of the short lyric.
gathered at her bedside
would not leave him alone
what left him alone
made for restless nights
an accessory’s babble of love
she recalled the thrill of being held
b.c.u. in a window beyond
what he called body
he was her life, a silhouette
through venetian blinds, anatomy study
to slacken the impertinent
she was his sad simplification
his hard edge, what bothered her
would not leave them alone
The visual conception fairly easily ties together the title with the content of the poem. Varying points of explication are readily available. Such work pleases the conservative reader. Yet even poems such as this share in the irreverence dealt by their more cagey counterparts while not being adverse to showing off a bit of clear, controlled awareness of “craft.” Highsmith has too much imp in him.
another night of night school
et les jeux sont fait
we “lick the windows”
of a textbook magazin
regard un morceau de pain,
un peau de lapin
to interrupt the timorous traffic
embrace le clameur de la rue
as we strive
to suffer desire, to imagine a sound
sensed above the rattle of Peugeots
The result is a collection that’s fun and surprising to flip about through reading at random and even while on the go, as well as, alternately, for extended lengths of time, dwelling on the more ambient moods and turns of phrase, following out the trickling lead given by this or that bit which strikes the fancy. It’s much more than that “there’s something in here for everybody” feeling, you aren’t left to take or leave a poem because it just doesn’t “work” for you. Every poem here “works.”
Highsmith hits strides in the longer poems where the riffs strike up melody and there’s an ever present scat-like occurrence where sought after meaning holds no ground as granted sound steps to, pounding along with rhythm of a panther stalking prey.
sustained with basin, another sunken treasure
achromatophilia beneath straw, cautiously
thrown, savanna to no object, unleashed
& coils into snakeroot, a notion of risk kindles
a carpet of grass, shale pit, layered inference
to sidestep eons, flight preceding echolocation
snapdragon to clam, bivalve, a fissure to stump
this sterile banter, hind limbs on which an
animal stalks, our history, the corollary static
to codify events, a thin rail west, a river’s route
slim spur of columbine, a beauty yet to come
wide continent resplendent beneath assertion
At these points the poem is nothing but pure linguistic animal, devouring and regurgitating language propelling itself ever further on vocabularies stretching to iridescent heights of sonic bliss. All with a gleam to the eye and a smile hinted at back of the lips. Poetry is a pleasure worth being around for and happily Highsmith isn’t averse to acknowledging it.
One wonders why more poets aren’t accepting of this instead of the usual picture: stilted selves so often seeming, awkward to the eye and heavy sitting on the page. The poem is the only true fact the poet leaves behind and facts, damn it, matter. It’s worth being reminded of how absolutely open the lands are that await a dizzying soul to step forth and do some exploring. Life is pure adventure when you’re welcoming of it, more attention needs be paid to allowing for the poem to take like part in such crucial and necessary excursion.
for Rachael Rakes
Brooklyn – San Francisco, Oct. 25-30 2009
David Highsmith lives in San Francisco. His involvement within the poetryworld of that city began in the 1970s. He is the proprietor of Books & Bookshelves which stocks quality wood furniture at acceptable rates along with holding one of the premiere inventories of small press poetry books while also serving as a delightful venue for an ongoing reading series hosting local and out-of-town poets of little to broad renown. He is a generous bookman. Be generous back and may poetryworld continue to spin round. Ask him about his other recent publications, the serially structured CONGREGATIONS (Plan B press) and PETROGLYPH (Painted Bison Press) each is worth notice.
Patrick James Dunagan lives and works in San Francisco. Recent publications include: From Chansonniers (Blue Press, 2008) and Easy Eden w/ Micah Ballard (PUSH, 2009). Things are looked to be forthcoming in Forklift, Pax Americana, and ON.