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Monday, June 15, 2009

Scott Hightower's _Part of the Bargain_, and Laurel Blossom's _Degrees of Latitude_, reviewed by Carl Rosenstock

Degrees of Latitude
Laurel Blossom
ISBN 9781884800801
Four Way Books, 2007

Part of the Bargain
Scott Hightower
ISBN 9781556592324
Copper Canyon Press, 2005
Price: $15.00

Reviewed by Carl Rosenstock

Coming to Terms : Part of the Bargain, Scott Hightower, and Degrees of Latitude, Laurel Blossom

Samuel Beckett wrote The Unnamable in 1953, when he was approximately 47 years old. I suspect he could not have written it at a younger age, much less have written the oft-quoted diminuendo on which the novel ends — “… in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” As I edge ever farther from formative experiences, I find myself less drawn to their simple recounting, and more interested in the process by which those experiences integrate into who I am, as over the years smaller, and even somewhat larger, compromises accrete and we become never quite who, or what, we started out to be. The question remaining — how is it we “go on.” Such a question is not proffered by someone taking the measure of the moment one is about to embark on a life; it is proffered by someone taking the measure of that life.

How easy, in the first flushes of adulthood, to feel that certain power that arises with first grappling with experience. Perhaps that’s why poetry sometimes strikes some as a young person’s game. Mind, I still love such work. Just as someone younger might read the later works of another to find the landmarks that lay ahead, so too I read another’s early works to be reminded again how one must look at each moment fresh. That said, there are those who understand what Beckett meant. … “Losses and brutalities / Have left me dull.” (“Door to the Terrace,” Scott Hightower.) This is hard-earned knowledge. Learned not when wounded. Learned after healing, when one strokes the scars and remembers.

That always unanswerable question of how we go on, how we come to terms with the distance between who we were, who we set out to be, and who we’ve become is at the heart of two strikingly different but beautifully composed volumes of poetry — Scott Hightower’s Part of the Bargain and Laurel Blossom’s Degrees of Latitude. Though both may chronicle journeys, these are, to be sure, two very different books.

On first reading, Hightower’s book appears the more conventional — a collection of seemingly unrelated lyrics — he circles back to certain critical themes, each poem a tessera in a mosaic portrait of the poet in the present. Blossom’s volume seems more akin to the work of an archaeologist — shards of her life laid out in such a way as to suggest the figure of the whole. Nonetheless, both books chronicle a distance traversed. Theirs is not a poetry of reaction, but of reflection, from the vantage that age and distance provide.

As with any such journey, we write from the perspective of the present — piecing together that which brought us to now. Hightower’s book begins, fittingly enough, with an invocation to the muse, the twist being we are not about to begin an epic, where such invocations are customarily made. “I have a preference for peaceful night / When I am alone; however, you are / Just as likely to show up mid-morning / or late afternoon …” In that invocation, he defines who (in this moment) he has become. To put those earlier lines of his in a context (into his context) — “Losses and brutalities / Have left me dull. (I am equally / Likely to be visited by the dead / As by the trials of the wandering living.”)

From that initial figure, contemplative, accepting, circumspect even, Hightower turns, in the next poem, to his boyhood in rural Texas — “Polio and Counting.” If that first poem marks the distance he’s traveled, this one marks the distance he would need to travel. The poem opens with the poet and his brother and sister sitting in the shade, watching as their father worked the fields, stopping only to “take a swig of water // from the burlap-wrapped / Can he’d stashed with us. …” He goes on, “By four, I could reliably / Count sheep in multiples. / A skill honed sitting // On my mother’s legs …” And there the poem turns away from the seeming idyllic setting, nodding toward the figure in the opening poem, “Her reclining on a raked / Sit-up board her father // Had gerry-rigged. Every / Morning she cried brushing / Her hair. The pain was simple. // Her perfume bottles glimmered : / “There will be pains that will not / Leave you with a kiss.”

Hightower then proceeds to plot the points (from his past, both distant and immediate, from his present … even from his imagination) between those first two poems, allowing the reader insight into how he evolved into the moment of the invocation, how the past bleeds into present, how once freighted moments are now recollected in calm. Such is the breadth of the collection, that no individual poem exemplifies the whole. He offers further recollections of his boyhood and of his sexual awakening, of the deaths of family members and friends, speculations on Charles Laughton and Ethel Waters, time spent in Spain, even dinner at Tavern on the Green (with its subtle allusion to Ziryab, who was credited with being the first to lay out the sequence of courses in a meal, and like any sensual encounter, “we finish with a cigarette”). Still, individually and collectively, the poems subtly circle back to that opening figure on the balcony — as he says, in the title poem, “For some of us, our origins / will seed our ends.”

On the surface — and the surface, so inexhaustible, is where we always begin — Laurel Blossom’s Degrees of Latitude seems the more virtuoso performance. Formally more daring and more ambitious, her journey seems the more straightforward. The vehicle is a journey from the North Pole, moving through three zones toward the equator, and then through three zones away from the equator, culminating at the South Pole. The individual poems, as such, are the nine points along that axis. The driving engine is a compelling narrative — a childhood divorce, a troubled and difficult mother, an abusive marriage, struggles with alcoholism and recovery, and a sort of redemption. This may strike some as fodder for Oprah. But in truth, there are few new “plots” — one need only read what Flaubert or Tolstoy accomplished with seeming soap opera plots. Like a joke (and what is a joke, after all, but a very short story), it’s all in the telling.

The volume, like the journey, begins on an Arctic icebreaker at the North Pole (“Ice so blue it’s frozen sky lit from within, above, below.”) Mixing the simply odd (“On the ship’s P.A., Belafonte singing Day-O”) with the oddly out-of-place (“… pictures of my son and me in Nairobi …”), the reader is seduced by both the clarity of the description and the voice describing. And then, at the last moment of this introduction, “… the Captain says he came up out of the swimming hole wanting to /shout for joy, but couldn’t. // The cold has taken his breath away.” The speaker takes the same swim, and comes up “ … wanting to shout : Get me out of here ! / … below freezing. / Cold as childhood. // Ladies and gents, I did shout it ! ”

The layout of those last lines does not convey how the poems appear on the page. Through careful orchestration of line breaks, alternating line lengths, and white space between stanzas and sections of the individual poems, the reader is deliberately slowed — contrary to the propulsive forward momentum of the narrative. The space between those last two lines, for example, heightens what is a deft juxtaposition of the pre-history of her immediate surroundings and the seeds of her personal history, of detached scientific observation against personal confession. Such prosody also allows the reader to linger over individual details, images, even savor certain musical moments (“We always knew where we were. In the middle, in the (humid) muddle in / the more or less // … Hallway (halfway) where morning and evening met.”)

Like Hightower’s volume, this is not nostalgia — a wistful exercise verbally recreating certain moments. It is an attempt to excavate the past, in order to understand the present. Where Hightower returns, in many of his poems, to the opening figure, Blossom drives forward to the South Pole, and to an acceptance of her present, which is a sort of redemption. (“So we have reached, at last, the starting point. / Here the auroral fire, the breath-taking, breath making diamond dust. / The ice moves outward, bearing the dead. /// Air so clear you can hear them speaking. / World so white you can see them writing. / Home is everywhere. Home is nowhere. YOU ARE HERE.”)

Part of the Bargain and Degrees of Latitude are, to be sure, two very different books. While Laurel Blossom’s book may seem the more virtuoso performance (and it is breathtaking in its beauty and its profound depth), Scott Hightower’s book, in its quiet, diffident, almost off-hand manner, is every bit the equal. What is overwhelming, what is powerful in both books is what the poets do with their personal histories. These are the histories, worn and weighed, of someone older, experienced.

What I found, after reading and re-reading each of these volumes, was not only how (albeit obliquely) they offered ways to examine one’s own life, but also how much they seemed to comment on each other. Midway through Degrees of Latitude, I thought of how Scott’s observations offered almost choral comments on certain moments in Laurel’s book. And as I pondered the poems in Part of the Bargain, I thought again of how apt, how true, were those last lines in Laurel’s volume. And isn’t that what we look for when we read — conversations between the books we’ve read, and conversations between those books and our lives.

Truth be told, I would not advise one to read these books back-to-back. It is an almost impossible task to twist your attention away from one, to then read the other with the same empathy. My advice is to read one, give yourself time, then (and only then) read the other. But do read them both. Only after, and after contemplating what you’ve read, will you be able to grasp what both poets, in their way, have accomplished in common.


Carl Rosenstock was born in Albany, New York, and grew up on a farm near there. He received a B.A. in Asian History from Union College, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College. His work (poetry, fiction and non-fiction) has appeared in various magazines, and anthologies. He lives and works on the westernmost end of Long Island, in Brooklyn, New York, where he curated the Night-&-Day Reading Series.