Murat Nemet-Nejat: Thoughts On John High’s Tetralogy, part 1 of 2

  Murat Nemet-Nejat

  The Journey Into the Wilderness, an Elegy:
  Thoughts On John High’s Tetralogy, part 1 of 2

  JPR 08

This text contains Endnotes: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

Watching a film, one gives over the movements of the mind to the movements on the screen. That’s what absorption (rapture, ecstasy, dying, death) is.

 — “Cinema is life.” Jean-Luc Godard

Books by John High in the Tetralogy being considered:

here (2006)
a book of unknowing (2010)
you are everything you are not (2013)
vanishing acts (2016).
  I. From here to a book of unknowing,
    the Unwinding of the Jail

“…The first
step into water outside the frame
of our seen…” [1]

Paragraph One follows — 1:

There are poets who say things, and there are poets who unsay them. Every language contains miraculous puns, having to do with etymological coincidences, accidental convergences of sounds. English has two: “eye & I” and “no & know,” either of which if pursued may lead to explosive results. John High’s tetralogy explores both, the latter through the medium of the first. John High’s poetry “unsays” things. here (the first book of the tetralogy) starts in a place of near total silence. Language functions as a prison, as the Simone Weil caption to the book spells out: “…a mind enclosed in language is in prison.” In this alienated state, spiritual communication must occur between a deaf mute girl and a one-eyed boy, a single eye being the chink of communication.[2]


In a book of unknowing language (as prison) becomes deconstructed. In this startling book, High uses cinematic techniques, introducing the lens (the eye of the one-eyed boy fused with/ transformed into the robot-like movements of the lens) as an entry point of a re-imagined spiritual language. The syntax continually changes direction in mid-stream in the manner of cinematic cuts, sentences zigzagging, undoing and reorganizing themselves, affecting the reader’s perception. The book requires an intense, stop-and-go reading, very much like a spiritual exercise.

 II. Images in here — the Prison of Language


White patches & gray
          a sky intent
on revealing

the steady mirror of snow
        found beneath our soil
Each, both earth & sky

opaque & distant
          yet here in the hand
& white glimmers

light etched into cumulous
      A black & torn cloth

the winter ghost
          born to study the clouds

& nothing else

The dead one came
          a slow music
over the ridge

        Naked & moving thru weeds

the child heard the voice

Why have you come
          again isn’t it

enough that you’ve
so many times in the road — [3]


The primary effect in here is deletion. The entire book consists of a series of distinct images separated by triple space. But, unlike the imagist poems of Pound or H.D. where images have their flint-like identity and completeness, the images in here look at each other across the gap separating them, reflect each other. That gesture, implying yearning, is their originality. They feel insufficient by themself, but complete in their reflection of the other: “white patches & gray” of the sky reveals “the mirror of snow,” and vice versa. But this is unlike the flint-like clarity of the Poundian image. They are opaque, pregnant with the white space surrounding the poems. In their interactions, the images project silence.


Language is a prison, and the instinct of images to mirror each other are attempts to escape that prison.


Visually, what is among the lines (and images) is a white space of separation and of loss, full of yearning to recover that loss, for the separated to reunite. That is the visual identity of here: a delision that embodies a loss, autobiographically the loss of the poet’s brother.


That unexplainable grief is the initial well of emotion that kicks off High’s tetralogy:


there’s a crossing in language
                  you don’t understand [4]


The primary guide in this journey of grief is “the winter ghost/ born to study the clouds// & nothing else.” [5] It does not focus on the self. It is a “study” that arrives as “a slow music/ over the ridge// Naked & moving through weeds.” The music that the personal grief starts — and here embodies — escapes from the self towards the other, towards “weeds,” “snow” and “clouds.”


Implicit in the “slow music” of here is the idea that healing the loss and escaping/ unwinding the severe deletions of the jail involve a breakdown of the ego, opening the eye / I to everything that is humanly other: clouds, weeds, mouse, birds, etc. — studying and becoming one with them, St. Francis-like, adopting their language.


A breakdown of the ego in the study of the other involves a kind of unknowing. The second book of the tetralogy the book of unknowing is implicit in the opened, “unfinishing” final lines of the first one:


or identity unfinishing always &

no one is looking, bro’

              sweet mouse

& pretty leaves


these casual beautiful dreams [6]

  III. The Other Side of Silence,
  the Quietness in Words


In the book of unknowing the “I” is transformed into the movement of a robot-like lens. This poetry of “slow music” is a liberating act, the yearning track of a camera of the mind/soul expanding, exploring beyond its own self:


The eye of a bluebird too
A darkened stove & the lamp
Finding out who is in the image
The bird speaks [7]


This movement of the self to all others (in this instance, through the eye of a bluebird that can also speak) is the central, overwhelming theme of High’s poem. the book of unknowing picks up where here leaves off.


…you start to study the water, whose self
beyond a white tip of tail , widened
& then (suddenly) notice it is not at all
in green trees, only leaves rustling, a fox, even
if silent, white eyes staring back a
truth… [8]


From the “stove” and the “lamp,” the bird / lens moves peripherally to water “whose self [lies] beyond a white tip of tail.”


The angle of the shot “[widens],” and “suddenly” one hears, not “leaves rustling” in the trees “only”; but the silence of the “white eyes [of a fox] staring back a truth.” A jump from the senses to the mind’s eye (the spirit) occurs. The impersonal eye of the lens encounters the “white eye” of a Heideggerian other (“the truth”), in silence looking back.


The continuing movement of the camera eye, which embodies a continuum of consciousness, side-steps words into silence, escapes the prison of language, which is also the ego’s prison.



a book of unknowing is a poem of a haunted absence. Repeatedly, the poem asks the protagonist/ reader to take a second look.


Unknowing — which is also an extension towards the other — is simultaneously a movement of freedom where divisions imposed by time disappear. The camera’s “I” moves wherever it wants (from a crevice to a deer to a girl playing music in vast air, notes falling on a stove, etc.): exquisite gestures of wandering across rapturous unruptured fragments of time:


Each creature coming & going in
the smell of sticks far away
under a crevice            a deer &
beginnings of agai frost          the girl
taking a violin in vast air a
                  single note falls on the stove
where she sits shifts
music unruptured like you’d like
                  to be back in history man
nature one little fly &
your arm resting right there
on fragments of time
[page break]

                            look again —

Together again arises a tiny
Boat floating to shore. We turn as albino
Doves diminish the sky; a sky
Pulling forth & bystanders seeing
Inside the wound for the first time.
As if the phonetics of water clearing
The boat now the dwarfed boy who
Led us to this set begins to stutter in verse
Some of us recognize. Who is it?
Why have we waited so long? [9]


Surprisingly — taking a second look (“look again”) depicts a diminution, a withdrawal: “…a tiny / Boat floating to shore…as [colorless] albino / Doves diminish the sky.” The withdrawal enables one to see “inside a wound.” This is a transformative moment. A language, words focused on others, “the phonetics of water,” turns into the “stutter” of a “dwarfed boy,” his mourning for the lost one. What the second seeing liberates is grief — its language — that was in prison in here. A stuttering. melancholy rapture/rupture of tears: “Why have we waited so long?”


A new language is born. What extends out towards the other (birds, beast, plants, water) extends also in reverse inside. The philosophical / objective and personal / biographical join. The Heidegerian “white eyes” of the fox (the pointed that) is also the albino dove. Being is also absence. a book of unknowing is also a passage to nothingness:


…as the one-eyed boy
folds his bags & begins a long walk
into the other side of nothingness. [10]


Unknowing ends up being transformed into unbeing, a [the ?] voice through which “the voice between two waves” speaks. One is almost what one is not.


The result is the peculiar, spiritual music of unknowing, a chromatic progression of sounds, loss (belonging to “hearts waking in winds”) wandering among the objects belonging to the other:


Truth, she says, & the saying goes
on down a trail of bees to places
no one saw or sees & a sea in a boy
reading letters in a year due
to blackbirds a collaboration of
hearts waking in wind & over there
wisps a light of wasps
tracks & resting raccoons
keep pace with our trees & echoes of
trees and all the naked
signals fill in an evening & waters
so who are we, the girl wanders till stars
refuse knowing… [11]


In the final pages of a book of unknowing, the focus of the language is no more on naming things, but on their shapes: “contours in a field.” Objects “lighten.” Time is smashed into smithereens, and departure and arrival lie together in a continuous present. Tears of grief are also of healing: “crow lighted alone… in a sycamore”:


What is a time of sea
              to you other days & ones
of whom we became & shapes of our
hands in this finding no more of things &
different people coming & going           contours
              in a field           some generosity in
the cut fruit on the table           a hypothesis of a mute girl
you said of a circle & circumambulating
back stretching to the geometry
              of a cry [12] two black birds a one-eyed
              boy beside her       a woman by the
striped oak & seaside    as we talked & walked
to the table     & yes in
a language where the trust came
much later & clothed in a ghost no one
ever knows & still here living inside us. [13]

… the boy says as the last of the window panes
shatter to the kitchen floor where we all saw
the two now peacefully sleeping. [14]

& breathing a horse comes into her
view circles over & over   we are everything
we are not she says & this small insistence
in between our hearing heals the masked
crow lighted alone in a sycamore.” [15]

  IV. you are everything you are not —
  The Grief In the Mirror


              A Post Bardo Flatness — Its Realness, of Existence

In ecstasy
union is in motion towards arrival.

In serenity
unity is flat.

All these, “the nest” (the osprey’s), “the cackle” (the jay’s), “the flick” (the condor’s), “the flashlight” (the fisherman’s) speak to you.

The total unity of all things moving the eye, moving the word (moving the ear) in a continuous field.

towards you
moving away.


you are everything you are not creates a parallel state of being. The grief that had been imprisoned in human speech begins to speak through the eyes of animals, plants, stones, water, etc. This is a space of ghosts and silence. The poem begins in liminal silence — and the wound that was “seen for the first time” at the end of the book of unknowing begins to speak its own speech.


The poem is about silence, the speech of silence: images occupying mental spaces in between that are thresholds both of arrivals and departures. One enters a reflection [16]: a reflected field of ecstatic suffering that “sees a small wave in the middle of waves,” [17] hears “a cadence of hair,” [18] “coaxes silence out of noiseless weeds.” [19] The human and un-human synthesize — ‘stones also are deaf mute…rivers, bees” — and, as if in a mirror, one becomes what one is also not. In this projection of the soul, in suffering, the prison of language turns into a prism: does not say what it says, but moves, says in motion — thought in motion.


At this threshold, the vision / the thought is still at the tip of the tongue (exists and disappears), is silent:


I hear passing terns & layers of white waves.
Entering where the gap between [italics my own: M N-N.] thoughts appear?
A monastic field within an eye where all roads disappear. [20]

A mute girl gesturing?
              Without sound. Fertile mouth. And a father in every least thing
                the unheard here seen.
It was her father? [21]


This reflected space, where the ghost of the “father in every least thing…unheard” is, is home where the seen and unseen, the missing and present, the said and only thought, human and unhuman convert into each other. And through the other (what one is not), the wound (the white eyes of the fox that, even if silent, stared back at you a truth in the book of unknowing) begins to speak:


Terns & gulls finding their way home, it is true.
          Not a thing or a sentence but what we have become? [22]
                    …she & the boy trailed by monks & ghosts & birds & trees & all of the others, and in that moment in a perfect silent pitch — we are here. [23]


A one-eyed boy seeing through the patience
of a stone on a hill.
[page break]


who could blame or name or not hear
the inanimate speaking
through their wounded silence. [24]


The patience of the stone, then, is no different than (not distant from) the patience in the soul.



The poem consistently depicts the transition of word language — books, documents, what is human “sound” — into the un-human — what is image (other), silent. A letter from an absent, deceased mother is key in this transition. “Letter” means both concrete language and message. As message, “letter” is transformed / translated into image, “…a / letter such as / pebbles to air, hawks & bluebird overhead…” As such, it joins the total landscape. In that way, the wound, the image of the absent mother becomes visible, contacted in a message — a sign / a speech / a letter in the silent landscape:


…the draft sequences found in a
diary and even later, still, in the missing eye
of a boy. My mother


wanted to introduce herself in a
letter such as
pebbles to air, hawks & bluebird overheard


in nets cast over boats
awaiting a flurry of epistles


the boy might read.…
                                              …the [boy]
kneeling over ants & beetles then without any
hesitation, throwing himself into a blush of blue water…[Page #?]


…books of afternoon rain over ants [25]



Looking into a mirror, one sees oneself speak without a sound, as if in a dream. Language, message detached from sound. The poem describes this dislocation as “[hearing] the shape of letters.” Time disappears. Past and present, the absent dead and the living consciousness extending into the mirror, the “it” and the observing “I,” a wall removed between them, connect and join the same field:


        …In a story there is never a beginning
& end — whose voice traces itself in air…

In a dream of language we begin.
cypress & bamboo bending, a wooden water tower, a boy sitting in tall         grass, reading her diary and the ghostwoman weaving from a bridge.
As she listened she heard the shape of letters in her mouth.
The words now speaking. [26]


This is the vision one arrives at in you are everything you are not: a speech of “stones,” “walls,” “soft elms” and “a conference of birds,” joined by lost ones remembered as ghosts, where all “speak with their ear” (see / speak and hear simultaneously from each side of the mirror), in a united sound, the “blooded song” of all beings.


And, in this speech emerging from the silence of birds “passing outside [one’s] window,” the dead (gone but not disappeared) speak to the living: human speech turns into “a blooded song.” The sound of a brook “drifting” from an eave becomes a book. Birds in their flight outside the window may relay the missing mother’s message hiding in their flight: “hi!” — in a silent speech:


the funny thing is the ancestors are stones & walls too.
they speak with their ear
in drifting books of eaves [27]
all these years of soft elm in a
conference of birds talking to you:
one might be passing outside
your window.
hi, she says.

this beginning born into remembering
                & forgetting.


figures of syllables & parable
pause between words.

what you find is not a ghost but a blooded
 — now we too have passed thru the place they paused in the book. [28]



Hearing is also an extension of presence, hearing is also absence — as words cascade into images of things:

        we are not & not only here. [29]
    V. What One Sees In the Mirror


A mosaic: a field of “thingness.” Liberated, objects open to each other. Demarcations disappear: one sees infinity, untrapped by names:

when the girl looked into the mirror
mirror mirror on the wall
she saw the thingness of things.
                              (if it were a name, you’d be trapped by it.) [30]

release us to our fields. [31]

banyan webbing along the rough
gray branches unfolding
as hedges in air. [32]

the unlined margins of water.

         — because when you come from it, you go there again. [33]

  VI. Forgetting, the Final Act


The one-eyed boy and deaf-mute girl take tentative steps into that field to unify along with everything surrounding them. Nature engulfs them:

 — the girl puts her sandal in the one-eyed boy’s
hand and tiptoes to shore,
imagining he is a boat.

the egret in a creek, ta ta,
  humming and we step back.
(still, some ask for a more suitable translation.)
and this beginning:
born into always beginning. [34]


Is the egret departing (“ta ta”) or are we (the boy and the girl) moving back? Or both?


In the final pages, you are everything you are not finally enters one of the infinite numbers of beginnings from which emanates the inanimate speech of a “wounded silence.” The entrant is totally, radically forgotten. “Dia-ry,” life embodied as words in time, translated through draft sequences as images, dissolves into that infinite space:

               — once we believed in a story
                              we saw ourselves also vanishing in:

crest of sparrows
crows down the river
ridge &
behind minarets
in an open field.

when i was a boy an effervescent here
among deer & horses,
& throughout draft sequences in a diary

hand along muddy water

in a bright tone of being.

a girl crying out
at breakfast — hooray,
a boy seeing through
a hill in the dark —
the mute girl signaling above trees.
who could blame
or name
or not hear
the inanimate —
speaking through
their wounded silence? [35]

  Notes: Part One

All books are by John High [See Books by John High at the start of this file] unless otherwise indicated. [1] a book of unknowing (Talisman?? : 2010), p.99.

[2] The deaf mute girl and a one-eyed boy are the protagonists of the entire poem through whose “eye” the poem is experienced.

[3] here, Talisman House : Jersey City, New Jerkey, 2006, pp.22-23.

[4] here, p.13.

[5] Unless otherwise indicated, The italics occurring in passages quoted from the tetralogy in the essay are my own. M N-N.

[6] here, p.130, the last lines of the book.

[7] a book of unknowing (Talisman House Publishers, Greenfield: Massachusetts, p. 10).

[8] a book, p.11.

[9] a book, pp. 40/1.

[10] a book, p. 120.

[11] a book, p. 83.

[12] The human cry and time constitute a circular geometry (grieving is also healing).

[13] a book, p. 121.

[14] a book, p. 128.

[15] a book, p. 137, the final lines of the poem.

[16] The process here depicts the coming together of the imprisoned (parted) spaces reflecting each other (“white patches & gray” in the sky and “the steady mirror of snow”) in here.

[17] you are everything you are not, p. 28.

[18] you are… , p. 78.

[19] you are… , p. 87.

[20] you are… , p. 5.

[21] you are… , p. 6.

[22] you are… , p. 7.

[23] you are… , p. 31.

[24] you are… , p. 38/9.

[25] you are… , p. 71.

[26] you are… , p. 76/8.

[27] “Books” (the message “drifting” from the eaves of houses) is hidden in the word “brooks.”.

[28] you are… , p. 90/2.

[29] you are… , p. 90.

[30] you are… , p. 101.

[31] you are… , p. 109.

[32] you are… , p. 108.

[33] you are… , p. 105.

[34] you are… , p. 112/13.

[35] you are… , p. 114/6.

You can find Part Two of this piece here:

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