March 30, 2014

Luminous Book: A Review of Maura High’s The Garden of Persuasions by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Jacar Press

The Garden of Persuasions by Maura High
Jacar Press 2013

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Maura High’s life and work have brought her from Wales to Nigeria and North Carolina, but her poems focus on ordinary, if intense, moments that reflect her interest in Asian poetry and Zen Buddhism. For example, High merges the commonplace incident of a bird’s fatal flight into a picture window with the infinity of disappearance, as of human airplane passengers, in “Exemplary Statements, with Meanings and Annotations.” This small death provides a glimpse into a great mystery:
…A bead
of blood leaking from its beak

To be flying in that blue
and then suddenly to be going

(we say, as if there were
some place to go to) and then gone
Each poem’s title in The Garden of Persuasions (winner of the Jacar Press 2013 Chapbook Contest) is taken from a bibliography of ancient Chinese works and commentaries. In fact, the book’s title poem bears the name of a story collection compiled during the Han Dynasty (1st century BCE). Along with the brushstrokes of the cherry tree branches in Jinxiu Alice Zhao’s cover illustration and the four ideographs that translate the title page, this decision underscores High’s subtle yet rich artistic technique.

High’s repeated use of brief lines—three to seven syllables—and her strong relationship to nature make her images as vivid as haiku. Her juxtaposition of short lines with longer lines in couplets, tercets, and one-line stanzas, as well as her frequent omission of punctuation brings an almost breathless tension to such poems as “Grand Mystery, with Collected Commentaries,” in which the reader feels as much as sees a snake’s entrance into water. As High describes the scene, it is almost as if the reader has become the alien creature:
A long brown snake
scribbled downslope

and slipped into the water without a splash

The pond sealed over as if
nothing had happened

but something did happen…
Even when High’s imagination travels to Ghana, inspired by an artist who makes works from ocean debris, her female beachcomber remains aloof and solitary, caught in the act of gathering essential to any form of creation. In “New Account of Tales of the World,” the artist’s movements become a dance set to an inaudible tune:
…but hers
is a private music—you see it

in her gait and how she bends
and turns and when she stops
to pluck at the strings of a net…
In more than one poem, High seamlessly shifts her attention to the inner world of a child, observed with precise detail—as for example, during the classes that High teaches when she isn’t writing. In “Writings for Elementary Instruction, two young students have very different responses to the national suicide prevention program To Write Love on Her Hands, which gives High a beautiful opportunity to play with her classic sensibility in contemporary time. The speaker attends to her task as the children do to theirs:
The boy wrote in cursive
inside the penciled outline

of his hand Pittsburgh Steelers
and looks over to his sister

who is copying the word LOVE
backward inside her smaller hand

her word, in a space she chooses
among the other hands on the poster

as a gardener slips in a flower
and tamps the earth around it
This fragile flower of love is transformed into a riot of weeds in the chapbook’s title poem. High finds both lushness and stubborn humanity in “…sorrell and chickweed / moss, bluets, onion grass… their arguments as manifold as ours / as stemmed and rooted.” With delicate irony (“…They seem harmless, a gift / from some time before Eden”) she unfolds their glorious—or insidious—tenacity:
…it can take years
for one to make its point

to seed or spread by root
or spore or runner, to crowd

or shade out competitors
a garden cultivating itself
The parallels that High draws between the flawed natural world and the flawed human world become strikingly interchangeable in High’s “Luminous Book,” in which the essence of dying autumn leaves seems to enter the speaker’s library and mingles with the pages of her volumes. As she describes the moment:
The leaves stop breathing and turn
the colors of clay, casting

a russet light across the room

on all my books, their lacunae,
errors, subplots ramifying in all directions …
Here—as elsewhere in The Garden of Persuasions—High’s poetic concentration creates a charged and mystical space. To read Maura High’s work with the careful attention it deserves is to enter a world in which every object is sacred, and to feel, with the speaker, a holy awe at the power inherent in the simple act of handling a book. High ends “Luminous Book” on a note of meditative exhilaration:
…I could take down any one at random
and open it, and bow to the light

emitted by its pages

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