The Desire Notebooks
“In what is best described as a book length prose poem, he [John High] attempts to uncover the un-narrative that lies beneath all tales of loss and redemption. In this tale set in Russia, he moves unhesitatingly across centuries, fusing the spiritual travails of the Middle Ages with the economic woes of post-Soviet life. This self-reflexive tour de force reminds us that high art need not be free of religious and political ideation. His prose gives the lie to the distinctions between poetry and fiction; its intricately gnomic language suggests the eternal and the apocalyptic almost offhandedly, without resorting to elaborate stagecraft. High conjures dreamscapes which retain the bracing tactility of the real: 'When the earth turned to salt and the skies came down to meet them. An almost beige sun. Some flecks of dust lifting off the thinly disguised road as the lovers walk past. A man and woman walking toward the sea. Black lizards and frogs flickering across the fields to the ritual noise of gunfire.'"
—The Village Voice Literary Supplement's "Top 25 Books of the Year"
“Abstract, vivid and difficult, this harrowing first novel from...John High (The Sasha Poems) combines metaphysical speculation with attention to the landscape and religion of Russia. High's three segments entitled 'The Book of Mistranslations,' 'A Face of Desire' and 'The Monks Overlooking the Story' describe the recurrence and survival of human desire under the most adverse conditions. Fragments of letters, dialogues, prose poems and descriptive passages bleed into one another to follow a pair of young lovers and a pair of monks, whose travails, though focused on the present, take place over a 1000-year arc of Russian history. The unnamed lovers suffer extreme deprivation in the metaphysical Siberia of contemporary Russia, a place defined by cold, cancer, morphine and nausea. Struggling to stay together, trying to connect through body, word and writing, the lovers are sustained in their secular journey by the monks Peter and Ezekiel, who, High suggests, have been repeatedly reincarnated, always looking for ways to heal each other's pain. An epigraph from Simone Weil resonates with other gnomic prose throughout the novel, invoking an unseen, perpetually ramifying 'event' all human beings must choose to accept...”
— Publishers Weekly
"High is a poet (Sasha Poems) and translator of Russian poetry, so it's not surprising that this latest work is dominated by its dense, poetic language and haunting imagery....Whether it's set during the Revolution or much later isn't clear, nor does it really matter, for the sense of loss, rootlessness, and the horrors of war remain the same no matter what the time period..."
In this [The Desire Notebooks] network of dreams and incarnations ("But it was like this for each of us, even in the earlier lives. Before we forgot one another, she wrote on the back of his arm in black ink as the train pulled away."), life itself becomes an act of translation, a passionate interpretation of the divine language that we do not define but that defines us. Such a world, and its language, is necessarily allusive and poetic, in part incomprehensible, 'foolish' in Erasmus's sense: neither the novel's characters nor its readers are its masters, for it is a book "read" from within the heart of a bewildered body-soul whose ultimate unity lies in a beyond that can be lived but not cognized.Nevertheless, this struggle, this desire to unite language and being is a necessary and authentic one, its transcendent meaning hidden in plain sight in a book that is equally Christian Bible, Buddhist silence, and our own lives. We are part of a myth both made and in the making. What is truly miraculous about The Desire Notebooks is that, across its many risks, it manages to be both earnestly pious and artistically rigorous, both spiritually 'naïve' (American) and infinitely complex (Russian). This book of world literature will certainly not arrest the decline of literary culture; but it does suggest a subject and a language that cannot be 'virtualized.' This is no mean feat.
—Thomas Epstein, “Translating the Divine,” Jacket Magazine
"Acclaimed American poet-translator John High has recently offered up a text woven during several years teaching and translating in the ex-USSR, in the early '90s….A swirl of prose and prose-poetry, The Desire Notebooks opens in medias res on a train, its protagonists, an unnamed man and woman, simultaneously traversing Russia and Russia's metaphysical heritage, amid social chaos. People try to get out, or in. Early on, a face in the crowd is crushed on the tracks. The train cannot be stopped, nor can the lovers, nor the Russian spirit; the human spirit, I should say.
High's treatment of this love-among-the-ruins motif echoes the stream-of-consciousness of Marguerite Duras' Hiroshima Mon Amourand the layered poetry of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. But his technique is even more fragmented, and in his complex polyphony of voice, high stylistic innovation, and mystical aesthetic, he sometimes echoes that great writer of landscape and loss, Edmond Jabes. Indeed, Notebook pushes the envelope -- mingling narrative, memoir, epistle, poetry, and mythopoeia. Lush, languid, poignant, funky, elegaic, prayerful, his highly personal, impressionistic style is in a line with experimental belle lettrists Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and Julio Cortazar; more recently, Carole Maso…
And in making us aware of the miracle that Russia still exists, John High simultaneously awakens us to our own marvelous impermanent existence and the moments of being that interconnect and move us, on our journey in a new millennium."
—Gary Gach, “Trans Siberian Express,” Poetry Flash
"A beautiful book; luminous, mysterious, hypnotic."
"...High's expansive opus, The Desire Notebooks, pulsates with fullness and loss. It's always startling to find yourself close to someone whose vibrant voice responds to every nuance of the breathing world, whose sentient experience is so awake that you find yourself awakened. This work roves through rituals of experience and imagination, taking us there."