Monday, February 10, 2014

Recent Reads: The State In Which by Hailey Higdon

The State In Which by Hailey Higdon

Published by above/ground press, 2013.

Recent generations have formed the habit of looking back at the industrious past – when people married at eighteen, when the word “career” suggested a life’s work and wouldn’t dream of being pluralized – and expecting that stability to settle in their own lives. Stories about our parents, grandparents and so on have inadvertently staked these signposts of adulthood in our minds. Yet the recognition that childish impulses and mature accomplishments don’t meet and reconcile at a certain age has only recently been acknowledged on a cultural level. Besides enabling a slew of dysfunctional sitcom and reality TV premises, this awareness that everything isn’t always okay has opened the door, a crack, for discussing mental health issues.

Repelling the comedic surface, Hailey Higdon takes on doubts surrounding self-identity and aging by dissecting common fears with idiosyncratic detail. As an open letter to the anxieties that accompany rites of passage we’re expected to cross cleanly, The State In Which wanders through ignominious aftermaths, month by month. From “January”:

That song about what a bad
impression you made
today is stuck
growing older in you
making choices with you singing along.”

What begins as a steadfast rut proceeds to seesaw, plumbing indecision through darker soils. The milder “April” and “May” provide an escape from Higdon’s suffocating doubts but they’re easily bruised in the outdoors. From the former:

I thought I saw Abbi in Nashville today, the lady
scratched her nose with her finger in a way that could only be
my friend Abbi, Abbi, but it wasn’t. Abbi and the gesture had been
taken by somebody else – stolen, and someone that looked like Abbi
too, what gives?
What a rottenly remarkable thing to take – I cried like a baby about it.

Could it be possible that I am growing my feelings in reverse?

Regardless of whether The State In Which is a convincing character study or something more personal, Higdon’s diary-like minutia will instantly divide her readership into camps. (Discarding the merits of mental illness is a privilege for those of healthy mind, so let’s exclude that group of would-be readers right off the bat!) By “camps”, I refer more to those who, in reading the above excerpt, detect a subtle black comedy at work, and then those who don’t. My interest in which poems those two groups might react to, and whether those reactions ever intermix, reflects the understated strength of Higdon’s unstable text: there’s no clearheaded way to get through this. We experience Higdon’s psychological hiccups on a continuous evolution and respond by utilizing empathy or understanding from experiences within our own private headspace.

If the passing months often feel like stand-ins through which our protagonist passively connects with the greater world, her entire calendar paces conditionally on the person watching it, advancing superficially only to round a circle of doubt. The same can be said for the many destinations she researches, grasping at foreign straws that might cure or transform her.

The static realism of the condition Higdon brings to life doesn’t prevent unpredictable jumps along the way. In fact, by the time we reach June and July, the narrative has scattered and overlapped – inaction rendering time virtually undetectable. What initially appears like a fragmented stream-of-conscious reveals a purposeful disorder of pages; there’s logic within Higdon’s rant about decisions to make, places to daydream about and “the mosquito” (constantly threatening to suck life or transmit decay) but we need to spend time with it. There’s a greater message society can take from this process.

With the cooler months comes a decline in Higdon’s need to explain herself. Obstacles remain, as do the occasional pep talks, but as each page submits to increasingly blank passages, there’s a palpable sense of surrender. Dull panic reverts to dependence over “September” and perspective of self gets lost (“what is or is not a response to bad things happening”). Her stanzas, grouped tidily in early months, push away from the left margin and separate into single, isolated phrases by December.

It’s troubling that Higdon’s resolution, acknowledged at the close of The State In Which, goes by without explicit mention. After so much chatter, that one glaring omission cleverly has us deliberating over the previous entries and the nature of depression itself. In a chronicle made all the more haunting through its casual collapse, Higdon touches the nerves of a conversation that includes everyone.

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