A Constitution of Silence by Jannett Highfill
Green Fuse Poetic Arts, 2013
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
Escape Into Life
I needed some heat and light here in January in the center of the polar vortex, so I reread A Constitution of Silence, by Jannett Highfill, which came out this summer from Green Fuse Poetic Arts, a not-for-profit organization in Loveland, Colorado. This poetry chapbook has fireworks in it, a thousand candles, sparks, lit cigarettes, lightning bugs, sunrise, sunset, stars, stained glass windows, a carnival at night, all kinds of sparkle and scintillation.
And the green fuses of cornstalks and wildflower stems.
The marvelously “odd constitution of silence” of the book’s title comes from the poem “Driving Me Home on the Fourth,” in which “fireworks seen but not heard // bloom on the horizon there and there, over / the dashboard, over our shoulders.” I’ve seen this, too, driving home on the 4th of July, with small-town fireworks displays studding the horizon. I’ve seen but not heard the distant finale, so I agree that:
we take on faith the punctuating thud thud,
the crowd’s gasped astonishment,
then the smoke and scent of almond in the air.
These are very clear, very sensory poems. They are subtle, intelligent, unsentimental. In “Existence Value” (an economics term, meaning the value a thing has just by existing, being there), a “mother has studied these snapdragons / all her life,” learning their genetics and their hybrid tendencies. She doesn’t do anything commercial or keepsake-y with them:
She’d never weave a wreath shaped like a heart,
decorate wedding cakes, or candy them.
She won’t take bouquets to friends, arrange them
in glass for dinner guests. She rarely gives starts.
They are not hers; they exist in themselves and on their own on this earth. “She loves them like children an old neighbor / used to say,” the neighbor doing the sentimentalizing. “No. She loves them as flowers,” as what they are, insists the poet.
Most of these are carefully formed and meticulously spaced free verse poems, but some of them rhyme, subtly, almost invisibly, as in this sonnet:
On the road behind us fists of fire bounce
out of control. You’re a fire-loving dragon
out for a ride shedding scales, and I’m the dunce
dropping the fag-ends of cancer sticks on
a black tar road. At ninety miles an hour
no one gives a Sartre what our restless
angst ignites. Joy riding Schopenhauer-
Nietzsche-Kafka, we consume a feckless
midnight, another lost weekend, and I
don’t love you and you don’t love me, but still
we drive as if there’s everything to die
for and a storybook empire to kill—
and if burning up Route 6 we flame out
of control remember the dead don’t pout.
[first published in River King Poetry Supplement]
Now that one warmed me right up, and see what I mean about unsentimental? But I’ll leave you with “A Gown of Anger,” a winter poem, and also a sonnet. It’s got the sun in it, but I’m still so cold, so cold, my patience with winter wearing thin…
A Gown of Anger
The winter wears its sunshine like a proud
and useless jacquard-woven counterpane.
A feeble snow erodes the long unplowed
unterraced fields. A California rain
invades, and soon the scrape of topsoil down
to the front-line turns to mud. Everything
is layered and thin in winter, gray, brown,
and umber. And now the hibernating
bear in me shivering in the pale conceits
of my cloak of fat and gown of anger
wakes and snarls and assumes the rank deceits
and shifts of the hunt, then tastes the bitter
air of spring. But will anything happen?
Winter wears even rage a trifle thin.
[first published in Westview]