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

  Murat Nemet-Nejat

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

  JPR 08

This text contains a fresh lot of paragraph marks and further endnote links: 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.

  VII. Tarkovsky — Archaeologies of Time:


Murat: There is a sequence in Tarkovsky’s Mirror which starts with the young boy reading a passage from Pushkin (about the peripheral but crucial relationship of Russia in relation to Europe), followed by a ring at the door (which the boy does not physically hear but still answers) and the appearance of an older woman there, followed by a telephone ring which is physically audible and which the boy answers and someone asks him if somebody had come to the house referring to that woman who appeared at the door, followed by a shot of a table on which a trace of condensed humidity slowly disappears — that sequence contains, for me, everything Tarkovsky believes about time and the importance of memory in organizing our existence. [36]


Remembering (nostalghia [37]) involves forgetting. What distinguishes it from nostalgia is realizing that one remembers only what is lost. In remembering, one is experiencing it twice, simultaneously, as remembering and losing. That is what Tarkovsky and vanishing acts, the last book of High’s tetralogy, are telling us. That’s why the unbidden, sudden appearance (return) of the mother in the same scene in The Mirror is accompanied by a vanishing — of condensed humidity.


Spiritually, silence (the door bell) and hearing (the phone ring) represent two alternate spaces, followed by a commentary / meditation on the passing of time — all occurring under the tracking eye of a camera: thesis, antithesis and chorus / spiritual synthesis. The synthesis occurs in a continuous present sculpted by the lens. In that sequence (co-existence), memory embraces time into itself, itself becoming a memory. That layered process, dream within a dream, so to speak, the forgotten transformed into a new appearance in a new present space, is what Tarkovsky’s sculpture of time is.


If, as Proust says, time (loss) is recovered (embraced) through remembering, it is liberated from demarcations / healed through forgetting. [38] vanishing acts is — through a series of translations/transitions — about this liberation, “a weaving of birds within & out.” Memory is experienced as strewn on a field, as crumbs of forgotten / remembered time. A rich mosaic of forgotten things.


High subverts Tarkovsky’s embrace. Memory extends both to life and death.


In the sculpture of the layering in vanishing acts, time is not embraced in memory; but liberated through forgetting. Memory as silence (image) and hearing (disappearing words, names) coexist. Remembering is a reunion with / in absence, the being here and not being, superimposed on each, in exquisite anguish. vanishing acts is built of a series of regressions that arrive, meet at the same place, Bardo. Silence and the heard (appearance and disappearance) occupy alternate sides of a wall, a mirror: Memory (as sudden appearance) and disappearance (loss), in solace and sorrow, exist on opposite sides of a wall, simultaneously in the reality of the soul and the reality of death:


                              …The girl
awoke without memory or dream. Smell of honeysuckle in
grass. Her mother sitting & sewing a sweater for a boy.
Perhaps she had vanished into rain before suddenly spreading
her arms into we who were waiting in the following pages. [39] The mother
would come back like this: the stark cold autumn, a weaving of birds within
& out as if the entire holiness of death were only ours &
in each breath. It is time now, she mouthed to the daughter. [40]


One exists both in “the holiness of death” and in “each breath.” Death (the absolute other) and the absolutely inner (one’s living subjectivity, one’s breath) unite crossing a threshold, vanishing to where it is always now. The vanished, “now” speaks — here — “mouthing” words to the deaf-mute girl who, in her inner silence, in the superimposition of two spaces, hears.

  VIII. The Structure of vanishing acts


i am abiding in the boundless
arms of my mother’s face
before she was born. [41]


And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at. [42]


vanishing acts consists of two parts of equal length. The first covers the forty-nine days of the Bardo ritual that follows the Tibetan Sky Burial during which, by the liberation through hearing [43], the dead body sheds its previous being and transits, vanishing, extinguished, into a new / old cycle of reincarnation of total nature. This cycle is limitless and borderless. The old life / being can transit into (is) anything, animal, vegetal or mineral. What was the absolute other (it) in the previous existence becomes “most intimate”; “we” becomes “weeds in water.” The mirror, which is also a wall, is crossed:

the other side of we//


weeds in water — [44]


Who is he?
A bamboo grove. [45]


One is almost at the state of unknowing — of oblivion, death, extinction of memory — that the tetralogy has been moving towards. The unknowing is now intimate, and, on a human level, on the subjective level of “each breath” (the front side of the mirror), one enters another’s thoughts, another’s dream — his / her / its state of non-being ?:


 — not knowing is most intimate [46]


Asleep in each others’ thoughts…(the jester doodling in the book) [47]


The transition / reincarnation is embodied in the very structure of the bardo section of vanishing acts. During the forty-nine days, the deaf mute girl translates a manuscript she discovered in a cave that turns out to be an account of her and the one-eyed boy’s life and previous lives. She gives her translated manuscript to a circus group that performs it during the bardo. And a film crew shoots the performance. In other words, while the images in the poem depict the transition of the soul into animate and inanimate beings, its form echoes a similar cycle of transformation as a series of translations from language to language and medium to medium. Each language or medium represents a parallel, an alternate space, each reenacting a new face of reincarnation. In a number of poems, the text points directly to the medium through which the experience is being recorded. The poem materializes the process, as film or circus performance. Each translation is a quantum jump across a threshold, a regression and vanishing in bardo, towards a new arrival:



weed in water —


…another ghost woman lounging
in a parallel boat


fingers of a fisherman & flute at dawn [48]


black reed under sycamore


still of sun edging inward [49]


the other musicians wade in


shallow & shade of branch / sound check [50]


over bark & mud


in silence hearing everything


you’ve never heard [51]


or needed more than being [52] [53]

  IX. Disappearance Into Motion / Light —
  Performance in vanishing acts

… Calculating geese in the wings’ movement… [54]


In vanishing acts, the disappearance from an earlier life that you are everything your are not depicted is internalized. Reincarnation becomes a series of Ariel-like disappearances, of forgettings. The vanishing act, as theatrical performance, becomes the ultimate, freest, most liberated stage of reincarnation where one state of being vanishes into another, “a stone skipping out thru hands” into “a bird’s mouth [motioning] over water on wind” in a “field of nobody watching.” With these acts, the separation from the earlier life is sealed off.


The poem of day 30 of the bardo depicts the process from its beginning, the moment of crossing the mirror, to its ultimate consummation, the total state of freedom and movement that Bardo is; a state of unity of all cycles of reincarnation.


The transformations happen “as thought,” weaving, creating a “ tale of non-being.”


Through vanishing, image turns into a gesture by light.


Binary separations like life and death, being and non-being, self and mirror (in other words time) disappear. The lost one (brother, mother, father) suddenly appears as ghost / as thought, completely integrated into a cycle of appearing and disappearing — continuous movements of changing gestures: “two red robins or was it a ghost skipping stones…,” “as the father passes the gate near dawn, or some shift in wood, a sudden squirrel & birds covering leaves…,” etc., etc.:


…a boy walking down a bank of a river — i was never born
& i will never die — the mirrors of another face & place
(where are you now) a stone skipping out thru
hands// a bird’s mouth motions over water on wind
& pebble of current & empty field of nobody watching
every word as moment changing in time & gesture & bow at a bridge
& clear signal two red red robins or was it a ghost skipping stones,
on river at an elm tree we saw on the day he came into being
alive as only thought as peace often is in a tale of non-being &
the gracefully floundering arms of no coming or going
while you wait and at last he sees your hand The one-eyed boy
talking to his true self in the mute girl’s diary) [55]


…are you in the book she is translating, asks the deer as the father passes the gate near dawn, or some shift in wood, a sudden squirrel & birds covering leaves…(sensing the mute girl’s gaze) we all pause to listen, and listen we did…faded tracks of animals all around[56]


These appearances (gestures) are only visible to the girl’s deaf-mute “gaze,” transferred as sound only by that gaze, making audible to the one-eyed boy, through love, the silence of the “faded tracks of animals [disappeared] all around.”


In the final 49th day of the bardo, death accomplished, the ghost, the deaf mute girl and the boy, united, pack up to enter the next river:


And then we all picked up our gear
& crossed the next river. (Day 49. The poet’s winter death poem) [57]


It is important to realize that Bardo is a “cool” space — of appearing and disappearing ghosts — where one has left one’s physical being. A site of oblivion. That is the reason for the underlying melancholy infusing it. It’s there and not here. To join the lost ones, one must lose oneself, must die.

  X. Bardo Thodol [58]  — and Ecstasy


1. Translation & Transition


2. The manuscript of a life is being translated & then translated into a performance & translated into a film.


3. Bardo is a site.


4. In a translation a text gains a new life in the parallel space of a new language — that is a transition.


5. Bardo is a site of transition. In vanishing acts it is also the site of multiple translations superimposed on each other that enable them to move from one space / one medium to another — from words to play, from play to film. That is the space of freedom, of no time, of reincarnations.


6. What happens after one dies…
he/she transits to a new space — Bardo.
that new is a translation — parallel to living!
The theatrical/circus performances — and from them — the film — are literally expanding translations of this transition (from the “original” life).


7. Old life — recorded in the manuscript — continues its existence as en-acted translation.
That is Bardo. That is the after life / parallel life (existence, presence) after death — death that is no death, but a translation. a transition.


vanishing acts


1. Vanishing acts are magical acts — are magical tricks.Is the vanishing act of dying a performance trick? Or what happens after death — the theatrical performance of magicians a trick?


2. A play of light, as a film is?



nature of all phenomena
changing with each edit
how did it take us so long
to arrive in the pages of the book
we were given [59]


Towards the end of vanishing acts, the speaker asks: what is the form of a constantly changing work, reflecting constantly changing phenomena? What kind of “edit” must such a book (film) have? In other words, what is the poetics of unending transformation?


The answer is partly suggested in the poem that follows the passage above:

so there you go all busy again sweeping the floor floating around watching your own mind (no inside no outside) a boy on a raft & the everyday reality everything here a kind of simultaneous inclusion…the place & no where really no where at all no sea no trees no cave no nothing from nothing & nothing just shifting all around supporting us all just a bow a tip of your hat on a leaf a lean on your broom & and there there you go just like that just as it is calm & ease what else what else do you need to tell me i’ll go get it for you
(“Yunyan Sweeps the Grounds,” Koan #21, Book of Serenity, Take Two) [60]


Simultaneous inclusion is the form of constant edit — a space of doubled, ecstatic presence. The subjective and objective merge, one can “watch one’s own mind (no inside no outside).” This is a “nowhere” where objects vanish into movements, gestures, “nothing & nothing just shifting all around supporting us all just a bow a tip of your hat on a leaf a lean on your broom.” Every state of being (translation) is simultaneously here, therefore. [61] Time disappears. In the tetralogy, the space of Book IV folds over the space of Book I. That way, one receives the lost one (mother or brother or father) reaching home. The place of original departure is also that of arrival:


And then she could hear herself
in the sentence & we
who are here
to welcome her home. [62]


Then, the edited text — gestures of liberated life — is audible as thought, silently moving:


overheard in the reading from the Book of Events. [63]


Duality, implying distance, emptiness and loss in the first book here, turns into doubleness, excess and abundance here.

  XI. Ecstasy — Existence, the Plethora of Being


The sentence awoke from the dream of things.

When I leave, what would you like objects to say to each other? That he is one of us.(Ilhan Berk, The Book of Things)

…children returning…and the worlds shifting into patterns of stars & particles & dust & pebbles from a pocket into footsteps of sand, a trail to freedom… (John High, vanishing acts) [64]


Bardo is a transit place. After leaving it, in the second part of vanishing acts, the relationship between “we” and “it” is no more one of passage (becoming), but of being (one is). The circle is rejoined. This is an orgasmic space, no more of absence: a plethora, an ecstatic dance of abundance, multiple assertions of being, “who…who…who…you are those birds…intimate with rain and clouds.”


One enters the Sufi mirror:
you are


those birds.




who says




swallow, blue heron,


egret, crane &




they know your name


by now.


(The hermit at the lake of forgetting.)


sitting a top


two branches of a


a sycamore tree.


two black pelicans [65]


Total union with multiple others happens “at the lake of forgetting,” requiring an absolute letting go of memory as an expression of self. It transcends “liberation through hearing” — total union is ecstasy. One ceases hearing, one is: two branches of a// sycamore tree.// two black pelicans.” [66]


The second half of vanishing act consists of magnificent poems of ecstasy where the constantly shifting, ghosts and objects saturated landscape of the Bardo — the intermediate there one arrives at leaving life — turns subjective. One again has come full circle. Image as object is transformed into image as thought, as spirit. The absolute other (the objective that the soul yearns for starting with here) and inner (located in “one’s breath”) join as one. Superimposed, the objective is also the subjective; object is also thought.


Philosophically and stylistically, a significant shift occurs in the middle of vanishing acts. While a Tibetan (Zen) Buddhist sensibility informs the tetralogy up to this point, Sufism informs the rest, shaping them. The ecstatic tone and the ideal of union — rather than merely unity and belonging — of erotic abandon and excess — rather than resignation and restraint — derives from Sufi philosophy. The poem ends with a daring synthesis and subtle shift from nature to cosmic forces, from focusing on objects to a space that thought occupies: [67]


What exists outside the mind   
 — a girl mouths the question
on his transistor radio/ /:
goats & geese in a magnetic field,
a blind artist sleeping on gravity
in a haze of what you think you see
among these migratory
/ thoughts /
identity going backward in particle waves,
the bicycle man & cartographer (in a koan)
meander outside your atoms
 — she caws — [sensing a new speech, ??]

as we rest by a sudden memory of words
/ unhinging / [68]


In this sphere of the mind (dream or thought), what is being let go is not life any more — that is insignificant — but restraint. Oblivion is no more separation from the lost one; but union with the infinite, divine or otherwise. Interestingly, the media of stage and film that had played crucial parts in the Bardo become here part of a wider, infinite union “[going] anyway without ever really coming and going…floating outward.”:


…and then we all fell back into theories of time & just in time for the
afternoon breeze, the boy on bicycle now circling
a lake as we watch from over his shoulder [a camera angle] & how he is
inside the question & dream quality of inquiry & rippled thin
shreds of light on tides where doubt vanishes in the schools
of minnows & the trumpeters & fiddlers rehearse by another make-shift       stage, turtles & crickets all about hearing — why only yesterday the girl painted          figures of sand on
their backs & on your face creating an icon of sorts, though what comes of       these
games in a theatre act in a vanishing, but there they go anyway without
ever really coming and going & no needs, just floating outward with the last       pebble
the boy drops from his hand in a lake of forgetting, so why stop now why go       back
why not go with them all the way to the end of time [69]


The shifting way the pebble that was the ghost that was the bird in the Bardo now is let go from the hand of the boy vanishing into eternity that is total forgetting. That eternity / forgetting is the ultimate arrival from a departure that itself also is an arrival.

  XII. Three Final Thoughts: The Erotic Embrace



The girl’s way of seeing it —

A photographer


across shore [70]


Given that the photograph is the way for the deaf mute girl to see, is the photographer or the photograph wading across shore? More precisely, is there a difference? Do they not become one in this final transition?


The way in a translation one arrives in a new place which is still the poem, in the tetralogy one enters a new here which is still the old here, simultaneous with it, superimposed on it.


Ecstasy and Time

Memory is not nostalgia, but ecstasy; a plethora of existence — objects, human life as spirit, as thought replicating rejuvenating.…   

(The girl writing to her draft selves, especially past & future, on a millennial birthday at the movies far away from here.)
Note, dear diary, a first
draft drafting
a draft inside

and all the rest all of it just we’ve always been
were will be together never
ceasing together always together in all kinds of weather. [71]


What is embraced at the end of John High’s tetralogy is not the memory of the lost (in a nostalgic reunion) but contradiction, life and death, departure and return, the past and now, arrival and departure, the inner and outer, etc. In that ecstatic embrace one loses not only the memory but oneself, joining, entering the mystery of unknowing and unbeing.


Everything occupies only an infinitesimal moment of being (is) in High’s poem, soon translated into echoes of its former selves. That is the prismatic, glittering, eluding reality of his poetic journey.

  Notes: Part Two

[36] From an email exchange between John High and Murat Nemet-Nejat, 2012 December 19th.

[37] It is significant that the letter “h” is kept in the title of Tarkovsky’s penultimate film. For him remembering is accompanied by longing.

[38] The fact that “to recover” has the idea of “to heal” buried in it is not entirely coincidental.

[39] This is like the appearance of the mother at the door (of memory) in the Tarkovsky film.

[40] Vanishing Acts, p. 3.

[41] vanishing, p. 115.

[42] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”.

[43] The Liberation Through Hearing is part of the title of Bardo Thodol in Sanskrit, one of the books that constitutes The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The hearing in Bardo occurs through silence. (Cite Editor? Translator? -J.H.)

[44] vanishing, p. 9. “The other side of we” is the other side of the mirror where one is in Bardo.

[45] vanishing, p. 42.

[46] vanishing, p. 34.

[47] vanishing, p. 58.

[48] A track from fingers to the flute.

[49] This is a movie still. p. 9.

[50] Of silence.

[51] The opposition between silence and hearing is abolished in this space. This is Bardo, the liberation through hearing silence: one forgets one’s loved ones before death, except replicated as ghosts.

[52] What one hears is the sound of unbeing (ghosts, gestures, vanishing acts, motions).

[53] vanishing, p. 9.

[54] vanishing, p. 33.

[55] vanishing, p. 36.

[56] vanishing, p. 125.

[57] vanishing, p. 56.

[58] Bardo Thodol is the Sanskrit title of the section of The Tibetan Book of the Dead on which the Bardo section of vanishing acts is based, though it is important to note that it is not based on that especially. “Liberation Through Hearing In the Intermediate State” is the full English translation of the title. “Intermediate” points to the transitional nature of Bardo, both as a link to something else and also constant change (in High’s poetry expressed as vanishing and in altered forms reappearing, in gestures) being of its essence.

[59] vanishing, p. 137.

[60] vanishing, p. 138.

[61] The “coolness” of Bardo in the first section of vanishing acts, when it is experienced as “there” by the reader, is experienced as “here” (simultaneous with “there”) once one transits out of the Bardo into a new consciousness of being.

[62] vanishing, p. 139.

[63] vanishing, p. 100.

[64] vanishing, p. 75 / 76.

[65] vanishing, p. 75 / 76.

[66] The “letting go of memory” contrasts with Tarkovsky’s “embrace” of its fragments, sculpting time. High also “edits” time, the way Tarkovsky “sculpts” it. In both, past and present are superimposed leading to its vanishing as a linear concept. But in Tarkovsky, embraced, memory is materialized (creating Jules Deleuze’s “time image”). In High, time is liberated by letting go. The space of the first book here is superimposed on, simultaneous with the final part of the last book vanishing acts (the poem ends at its elegiac departure point). Past or future disappear. One has an excess of presence / present: an excess of existence. The brother dead in the first book is now here co-present — coexists — with the one-eyed boy and the deaf-mute girl. The cool remoteness of reincarnation and ghosts in Bardo ceases. Existence as being is doubled, grief transcended, yearning fulfilled as spirit.

[67] In Sufism, the totality of nature is the divine. Union is a Sufi idea. The one lost in the physical world is regained through union with God. The idea of bodily loss is replaced with fullness. In union, one does not go there (as from life to Bardo); but nature (God) comes here. One gains. Though the Sufi pathway is full of suffering and tears, it is also ecstatic. Moving from the Bardo to beyond, High creates a synthesis between opposing Buddhist and Sufi ideologies (reincarnation and union). Tarkovsky as an Orthodox Christian, Buddhism and Sufism represent alternative paths to a language of the spirit. At the beginning of vanishing acts, High lists six names from whom he quotes in the poem. Tarkovsky, Rumi (the iconic 16th century Sufi poet) and Han Shan (the legendary 9th century Taoist Buddhist poet of Cold Mountain) are among them.

[68] vanishing, p. 146.

[69] vanishing, 144.

[70] vanishing, 154.

[71] vanishing, p. 167. (final poem of the tetralogy).

You can find Part One of this piece here:

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