Saturday, April 20, 2019

Review of Crossing The High Sierra

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Crossing The High Sierra by John Brantingham

John Brantingham has spent a lifetime wandering the High Sierra, and in this poetic tribute he invites us to hike and backpack beside him and his artist-wife, Ann, through an iconic landscape—from Mineral King to Huckleberry Meadow, Kaweah Gap to Alta Peak, Mist Falls to Moro Rock. Along the way, he captures a sense of place that’s both immediate and deeply rooted in memory.

John has a straightforward, conversational style that’s like talking to a good friend. You get the feeling you’re sitting across from him while he enthusiastically tells his stories from the backcountry. In the title poem, he talks about “the emotion of this place in high summer”—

the way it makes you turn inward,
the way you get that church feeling,
the one you always wished you’d found in mass
when the priest would swing his mitre of incense
but you never did, and that was the reason
you knew you had to leave it behind.

The natural world he knows so well abounds in mystery. In “Half an Hour on Silliman Pass,” he writes:

…Annie points to a hawk
circling down below us. It’s a hundred feet
above a meadow, and we watch it hunt
until it plunges into our unknown. We talk
about how life is always a mystery,
how most of what happens is just out of sight.

Evoking the unseen, his poem “In these Autumn Caves” begins:

This autumn, as the dogwoods
in the High Sierra glimpse me

into a sense of what color can be,
the stream that flows past me

seeps also downward into a cave
that no human will ever see,

into a world of rock, water, and creatures
that have lived only there

for 50,000 years, becoming animals
of darkness with their own passions and dreams.

What they know, we will never know.
What they dream, we will never dream.

In this volume, you’ll meet bears tearing apart logs to devour termites, and a coyote who “had so much/of his life ahead of him he could just let/time pool around his heels.” You’ll become acquainted with sugar pines and manzanitas, snow plants and turkey vultures, and feel the region’s mounting losses—the vanishing glaciers, the devastating fires.

There are moments of humor, too—like the poet’s memory of his boyhood self dancing on the edge of Moro Rock and singing his favorite song, “Salt Peanuts, Salt Peanuts.” Or the sense of geologic time being like a slow motion bossa nova by Jobim.

In the end, there’s no separation between poet and landscape. As John says in “Several Miracles of the High Sierra”:

One of the miracles being
that once I enter the forest,
I am the forest and the memories
and fears and joys I bring
are the forest as well.

Last and certainly not least, this book is a love story. It begins with a dedication to Ann, and ends with “Sing the Frogs,” a poem that ties the High Sierra to the time when their relationship began. Crossing The High Sierra is a satisfying read for both mind and heart.

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John Brantingham is the first Poet Laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. He has authored ten books of poetry and fiction, and his work has been featured in hundreds of magazines. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College. He and his wife, Ann, teach poetry, fiction, and art classes at the Beetle Rock Center in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest. Learn more at

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Book Reviewer Cynthia Anderson lives in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree National Park. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, and she is the author of seven poetry collections. She co-edited the anthology A Bird Black As the Sun: California Poets on Crows & Ravens.

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