There, There, George Higgins’s first collection of poems, is a search for that something more, that something that was promised: justice, equality, progress, and truth. The speaker seeks this promise through seeing, defending, and distinguishing. His is made among family members, The Constitution is cited, and poetry, that earnest genre, tries its damnedest to name.
Seeing is practice, both literal and figurative; it is personal and political, a practice for him as both poet and lawyer. We glimpse at the origins—parents, ancestors, prisoners, judges, and poetic traditions—comprising this poet. Sometimes they deny each other. For example, In “Reading Hayden’s Frederick Douglass to the Alleged Dealers,” the speaker shares a poem by one of his favorite authors, Robert Hayden, but the accused won’t give the lawyer their attention, even after he’s bought them ties and showed them how to make the loops and turns. These tensions and operatives abound in Higgins’s work.
The cover of There, There works perfectly. Many covers seem to serve as a setting snapshot or a mood evocation, but Higgins’s does more. He chooses one of Dorothea Lange’s photographs from her Oakland, California, public defender series. Black and white, that familiar contrast, lends itself to multifarious interpretation—racially, historically, thematically, photographically, you name it. Squares upon squares dominate this image, framing the public defender and the accused. The defender’s eyes face us. His pressed-shirt shoulders lean in. Both defender and accused rest their arms on a desk, another rectangle—more lines in a harsh white glare. The public defender’s mouth is still. We know he has or will explain and counsel, but for now he listens. Prison bars partly obscure the NO SMOKING sign on the door. Right there, NO is on the vertical axis, opposing the affirmation of justice and rights. To defend is to ward off, protect, keep safe, but also to hinder, begging the question, Who and what are hindered? Public is for us, pertaining to a community as a whole.
So, too, the bars in Lange’s photograph look like a grid, a form that contains. Like a society contains a man in prison but not necessarily the problem, a poem cannot truly contain a subject. It’s bars we see through, an imperfect perspective–not the whole yet decidedly better than a cement box.
“After Another Execution”
I read on a slip of paper at dinner tonight that
You must empty yourself before God may enter
so I emptied myself and found
the bottom of a lake bed
caked with sticky mud
next to a sign that said
do not swim.
Under a covering of mulch
the reflection of the stars
disappeared into the blackness.
I no longer want to reconcile myself to grief;
I’ll sit with this thing tonight.
Let it crack the bowls, break the windows out.
I am weary of running away.
The lines in the middle empty out. It bottoms out right at “do not swim.” The opening long lines do not return till “I not longer want to reconcile myself to grief.” After the plea for help, the speaker takes the advice. He does the hard work. It takes a long time for those signs to appear, as that place has been bad for his health for a long time. No longer lost but found in muck and hazard, a mess witnessed under starlight. Higgins repeats the negative and not like the NO on the cover. Here is not what he can do but what the public defender cannot do: stop the execution. So he sits there in the lake bottom or the church, not really there, there. Grief and everything else that cannot be prevented can just destroy everything around him. He has the courage to watch it and feel.
What can a public defender show us about a newborn’s startle reflex? Spreading the arms is like being arrested for what you did not do, a separation from security, an alarm, a cry from the innocent. A public defender holds a life in his charge. He’s often the only one in the courtroom and the meeting room doing so, always wishing he could do more and searching: “To have been there an hour before/And instead of allowing you to watch/ to have walked you up the riverbed/ to your parents’ home/ through the thickets of flashy palms,/ to have held you by the shoulder/ And left you at their door/ That would be defending” (“Defending Sweet”). No one to hold. Nothing held.
I recently served four days on a federal jury. My must-stay-in-juror-room steno pad teemed with witness statements and their body language, especially that of the defendant, who never took the stand. Mostly, though, I couldn’t take my ears off the public defender. What was she telling me with those fired-off questions that went unanswered? The little things that were never settled but stayed with me, creating their own reality? The consensus theory is truth agreed upon by a group. Say, a jury. It was a reminder again of that timeless dilemma: How are we to distinguish the truth? As lawyer, as a juror, as poet? I have not gained any significant insight since I was assigned that question for a high school paper two decades ago. Higgins has, though.
In “Notes,” the accused hands his defender what he has remembered of the events: “For the first time the lawyer really looks at them,/ the notes, on the lined, school boy paper written in pencil in a careful hand./ The lawyer doesn’t need them/ but holds them in his arms.” The speaker stops himself. He “really looks at them.” The “careful hand” and “school boy paper” return us to elementary school when the accused paid attention and cared, when some teacher had not given up on him. Also, the moment nods to father-son tenderness. The investment of the faraway past and the immediate past in the cell reconcile. There is no sense that any of this care will matter because “the lawyer doesn’t need them.” When so much is out of our control, when verdicts seem certain and doomed, we hold onto something or someone. For a lawyer and poet in this moment, of course it is paper and pencil—“notes” of the promise for something more and better.
There are many fathers and sons in There, There. Literal, yes, but also the accused with their public defenders, poet-teachers from the New York School, and also the go-to rhythms and God of the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Higgins thanks Robert Hayden first. Recall that Hayden was the first African-American to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (later changed to Poet Laureate). Auden taught Hayden at the University of Michigan; Hayden then taught Higgins at the same place. We can see Auden’s great love for Gerard Manley Hopkins in Higgins’s work: that dedication to prosody, to varied techniques, and off-rhyme. That is there with the villanelle, triolet, ghazal, but mostly the sonnet. The surfaces are not perfect—again, bars we see through. Hayden’s Americans are “élan vital,” “some thing,” an “essence.” Strict form with violent subject matter—the tension between address and contain.
In the remaining sestet of “Let Go,” a Petrarchan sonnet, Higgins writes:
What follows is our walk across the berm,
the blessedness of knowing that she’s lost
herself in momentary clarity.
We also observe that what we’ve done has cost
us a trip to find the string, the tail we
think are lost. What’s missing here we can’t confirm.
The end rhymes of lost/cost and clarity/we heightens what is not there and what is unsettled. No we. What is missing? That more that is promised in life, on the job, if we just try a little harder and have faith. The speaker wonders if that mythology, that passed-down way of thinking leads to loss. Nothing adores paradox and juxtaposition like a sonnet.
What will remain is what I’m feeling now,
The rising and the falling of my chest,
the hum that’s undefined inside my ear,
perhaps a drop of thankfulness. The Tao
repeats: count syllables, which beat is stressed?
It’s not the words, it’s what you hear. (“The Tao”)
Note the un- again in this sestet. It is undefined like unspecified. The opposites, rising/falling, repeat/remain, and not the words/what was heard do not reveal a path, only more negation.
“There’s no there, there” is a misinterpreted Gertrude Stein line about Oakland. It usually means there’s no culture or soul in a place. People have said this about Detroit and Oakland, both homes to Higgins. Higgins debunks this time over, from a hospital in Motown, to a bar where his father bought Billie Holiday a drink, to the sixth grade Lady Bobcats basketball game, to Oakland High, to Cesar Chavez Park. You can’t have people without soul, and struggle and art can’t exist without soul.
Seven hundred miles away one of the nurses ran a phone line to his bed:
I’m holding the receiver next to his ear. The docent in the Heard Museum tells us
about the ceramic bowls of the Mogollon, placed facedown
over the head of the deceased, sometimes in layers of four
as though they were the dome of the sky and its four layers,
each bowl pierced with a kill hole through which the soul ascends.
When I researched the Mogollon tribe’s burial rites, I saw that the bowl is “killed” with the center hole to symbolize the fatal wound. The potter’s soul can then accompany the dead. People live on in their kin. They do so genetically but also spiritually. Death and Birth in a wheel, around and around like a making a ceramic bowl. The long lines are akin to distance: reaching out like phone lines between father and son. Seven hundred miles is nothing for souls. I love it when a poet gives me the option to look things up but doesn’t demand it for interpretation and enjoyment of his own poem. The poems succeed either way.
The most important question in There, There is, What is the there of origins? Of prison? Hayden concludes “[American Journal],” “A quiddity I cannot penetrate or name.” What is the poem but a pointing to a place, a making of a place to sense? In these 53 poems, Higgins offers some frame to make it seem navigable and seeable.