-- "Go out and see where the roads are going,

what the trees are saying, how the wind is going." John High, in The Desire Notebooks, pushes prose past myth’s exploitation and across a protean inner landscape, where vision explodes on impact with the yearnings of body and soul. The story of two lovers and their passage on a train through the harsh Siberian winter, this is also the story of the Notebooks, notebooks that contain the story within a story, one that folds over – and unfolds from – a journey into the fractal of the spirit. Set against the brutality of a time when "Our countries are dissolving – the way paper dissolves," this is a book in which desire reveals its trembling over and over, acknowledging a physical as well as a spiritual body in the wake of earthly collisions— the collision between restraint and passion, between idea and form, between life and death.

The Desire Notebooks is actually a trilogy of novellas, each of which expands and contracts over the same moments, moments in time but not of time, through eyes both bruised and blessed. The first novella, aptly named "The Book of Mistranslations," moves within the narrowest lens. It centers on the lovers, a man and a woman and "The way we tried to restore the love, mere travelers, having been given a train." Here is hunger at its greenest, and need at its most savage, a photograph in negative, reductive to the core of want and knowing this. High writes: "What he witnessed in her face while she read resembled something like a raw completion, a temptation and a washing of rain." Later, there is "A holy place transformed, a plural time, but a singular event in the way she told it – a landscape of rich monasteries and fields, mosaic glass, maybe a harsh history, though he was unsure because of his hunger." And still later, for yes, the woman is dying: "You’ll have to meet her death then, like the opening sky, the cone, the sparkling tears of light on the bridge. Return, only sideways, in the dawn’s brightness that splits and flowers the night!"

The second novella, "A Face of Desire," in overlay makes luminous those points of intersection with the first, at the same time that it enlarges on the story. Peopled now with ghosts and gypsies, with the one-eyed boy with burning wings and damaged nomad monks, the story of the man and woman fattens on and transforms through encounter with these others. This is a world where identity’s boundary shifts with memory and memory’s shape is fluid as this book’s river that was, then wasn’t. "What does it mean to be separate when we walk together all day?" is a question asked in the Notebooks. There is no pretense of answer, but there are white stones, and fish pulled from the mouth, and "the white light of the frog’s mouth, the lizard in his trembling left hand, these rats scurrying away from the polluted river"— windows backlit by a mysticism too radiant to hide inside answers.

The final novella, "The Monks Overlooking the Story," again takes its clue from the title: there are now the "warming streets of the finished winter," as if the monks themselves by stepping back have withdrawn as well the shadows. In the new light there are reckonings: "The tide picks up the soldier’s rifles randomly strewn across the beach. The tide picks them up. They carry out to sea." And there is recompense: "Rock islands not as far away. A white backed angel on the whitebacked rocks. The sleeping weeds." The smells are rich now, fecund as the woman’s belly… and the push of the fractured narrative is deeper into the past, is further into the future, is a bulb pushing green shoots up from black soil. Now the intersections between the three stories are brightlined by an older wisdom: "…they don’t exile you, we know – you exile yourself. We rub our hands over the fire and watch your ghosts surface tonight. Hissing at one another in an earlier language… Why were we so afraid to acknowledge our vision when it leaned into the visible of the page?" And now the story – in ending – is: "… still flying toward absence and without a body and therefore without boundaries. We rub our hands over the fire and wait. The blackness of a blind eye, a raw mouth. When the wind starts. Comes alive again. Leaves you."

This book, however, does not leave you. In reading it, perceptions are forever shifted. Andrey Tarkovsky, the Russian filmmaker, speaks in Sculpting in Time of the artist as someone "capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life." John High, with The Desire Notebooks, does this. He opens the seams of silence. Released, the voiceless callings and formless beckonings of "impalpable connection" slide beneath the skin, to enter - and become part of - the reader’s own inner landscape. With great care not to encroach upon or hinder in the process, High transcribes this journey.

"..what the trees are saying, how the wind is going…"

-- Lisa Bourbeau

Copies of The Desire Notebooks are $ 29.95 hardcover, $ 14.95 paperback, and can be ordered online from:

Spuyten Duyvil, PO Box 1852, Cathedral Station NYC  10025

or online from: http://www.spuytenduyvil.net/titlesB.html


The Desire Notebooks: A Review