The High Alive: An Epic Hoodoo Diptych
By: Carlos Sirah
Published: The 3rd Thing (2020)

The book arrives neatly wrapped in white tissue paper, tied up in twine with a bow. This theatrical presentation plays with pretense and anticipation. Unwrapping it, the book smells like dry oats, fresh and pulpy. Handsome, thick, fibrous, the book contains two narratives bound back-to-back, starting from both sides, meeting in the middle. Evocative of the 1950s Ace Doubles, this book speaks with physicality as well. It presents a choice upfront, playing with the conventions of printmaking. The text reads easily, but the subject matter is abstract, like a performance: part poem, part drama. One narrative evokes the trauma of the millions of identities stolen by the Atlantic slave trade. Flip it over and the other side offers a contemporary post-war love story, told in part through handwritten letters between two lovers, Micah and Noah, interwoven with images. With keen dialogue and vibrant scene detail, Carlos Sirah provides a gripping and bizarre portrayal of the artifacts of war, of religion, and of love.

On one side the protagonist, the amputee Noah, “Veteran of those Forever Wars,” is unable to adequately describe his war experiences to his lover, Micah. The other side eschews all plot devices, growing off the taproot of the Atlantic slave trade and exploring connections to 5,000-plus years of violence in the Middle East. These two poetic texts mirror each other through a spread in the center of the book, between blank pages which read “End” and “Begin Again.”

A reader can begin with either section, “The Utterances” or “The Light Body.” The book is designed such that it can be consumed backwards or forwards. The effect is a transfer of memories that is not so easy to express, mining the knowledge and experiences of its readers for context. It contains the difference between a story and a philosophical treatise on morality. It’s about how bodies contain stories, how the earth itself holds memories within rocks, and how those memories both matter and don’t. Some of the most compelling drama unfolds in exchanges between lovers:

Mane, I swear ‘fore God, Noah
if you didn’t talk in your sleep
I wouldn’t know shit.

The book performs a fascinating exposé of trauma, intergenerational and self-inflicted. The text speaks about personal experiences of trauma with blank spaces and vigorous imagery. It conveys conversation through the way it appears on the page. At times it reads like an internal monologue, even as the characters speak to each other:

A temple colors its walls orange in consideration of that day.
What about your missing leg Noah?

My leg is inside my mind
which is inside the space
which is your mind
which is also a dark cave
which is also the salivating dogs
that we shoot
on the side of the mountain
every time.

The narrative’s subtitle, An Epic Hoodoo Diptych, offers clues into how the reader should experience the project. Hoodoo, or voodoo, is a religion that grew from the slave system in the Americas, incorporating an amalgamation of mystic practices that originated in Africa. “Diptych” refers to an old form of publication, two pieces of art held together with a hinge, like a codex without any pages. The High Alive: An Epic Hoodoo Diptych is two contingent textual dramas.

The book’s publisher, The 3rd Thing, commits to publishing “necessary alternatives.” According to their mission statement, where two options appear in conflict, a third idea arises “when we use imagination instead of compromise to solve a problem.” With Sirah’s book the necessary third option beyond these two conjoined narratives is to reflect on the nature of trauma and how our ideas, cultures and philosophies put us at sometimes violent odds.

The design of each page, as the work progresses, develops a stage with few props. Images of artifacts like an African knife and pieces of the natural world like half a peach “Walk the thin line between this world and the other.” These eerie, provocative injunctions pepper the play with an uncomfortable sense of fight or flight, maybe like being in the presence of a voodoo ritual. Occasionally the text appears to break through the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader: “How sharp is your blade?”

This book dragged my brain into a morass of contingent rumination. Maybe Sirah intended to ignite the personal conflict I experienced puzzling over what I think about this unique literary work over the course of several months and many hours of rereading and note-taking. This text transcends narrative. It encapsulates abstract personal memories with centuries of conflict into the very small space of a single book.

All these ideas appear gradually through several narratives in “The Light Body,” the more straightforward side of this printed artwork. This side of the book offers a portrait of two lovers learning to cohabitate. Micah tries to understand Noah’s experiences in war, how he lost one leg. But dragging out details of the actual incident becomes like trying to recreate his limb out of sand. The memory is not as important as its impact on Noah’s body and psychology.

The unknown plays a significant role here. Besides the blank spaces in the printed play, there’s uncertainty about the actual conflict. For example, much of the tension between the lovers is subconscious.  Noah’s stories are present in his dreams. Micah tries to understand by touching his lover’s heart, and never really can understand. And deep suicidal ruminations surface between them: “When you fantasize do you think it’ll happen with your blade?” In verse, through conversation, the full story remains just below the surface of what is expressible:

Between the folds of time, I gather
within the wood
beyond the field a
Holy feet on the hot soil of my earth with my lover’s heart. I,
Holding his him in my arms. 

Noah’s memories and Micah’s imaginations of those memories get excavated like earth in an archeological dig. Carnal thoughts intrude through this text, showing how the powerful aspects of our subconscious, our feelings, what makes us love, what gives us joy, what makes us hate, remain outside our control.

Sirah’s poetry alludes to the idea that we carry our ancestors’ experiences in our DNA along with their perspectives in the stories that we tell ourselves and others to form our identities. Some things that we do not remember at all still appear in our physical brains and bodies, effecting how we interact with the world often without our conscious awareness. Trauma etches itself into the circuitry of our brains. Since both sides of this book unfold inwards, there’s no sense of finality. The navel gazing is cyclical. It does not end.

“We think: since there is so much loss here . . . loss must be gone.”

The spacing of the dialogue and the design of the pages speak too. Ideas arise out of blankness to be challenged, each word or phrase chosen to jarring effect. Some lines appear random, yet deeply considered: “Do you know we are alive with desire for something else?”

Choppy ideas connect on one side through Micah and Noah, and on the other side through a series of Southern characters. Like in the words of Mutta, “Do you know there are stages to every war? There is the time when it creeps up, and lives in the words of persons, as they prepare to hurl their bodies and all the extensions of their bodies: the metals, and tactics, and philosophies.” It’s dream-like at times, a journey for a stability that is never achieved.

The High Alive might be read as a series of poems and dialogues. It expresses the hopeless desire to understand another person’s psychology by listening to their heartbeat. The text conveys what it is to feel like a loser, to feel nothing and to feel everything. It fashions memories from what is mostly blank space, and picks up random artifacts, placing them in order like evidence of something that cannot be said, of a desire for both death and for life at the same time.

Flesh becomes memory, and the narrator “digs” through time, crushing through layers of rock. The attempt to extract a memory is nothing like the actual experience that memory represents, as the text shows us through descriptions of scenery. Feelings might hold a memory that is beyond conscious retrieval, buried under such descriptions. Sirah uses nature to illustrate how even silence is not completely silent.

Ice falls
and falls
the sun rises
the ice melts
and the trees
crack and crack

“The Utterances” side of the book has a magical quality. Theories grind against each other like bones ground down by the narrator. Language and ideas meet in the flesh of a mind, expressing themselves through actions. Here we have theories, and the “Theory of Bessie performs” through abstract characters. Ideas themselves are the characters in these dialogues. They are bodies, and they leave their bodies.

Reading this side of the book can be challenging, and breathy with punctuation. It involves rumination and what appear to be therapeutic exercises. Much of the content is imaginative. Since it’s about ideas, it involves many different and conflicting stories. Memory appears in a face, in the way the characters speak, in a body, in the earth itself: it is beyond expression. The cycle of an individual life effected by a violent conflict over philosophical ideas, stands in contrast to the masses, and all of history, as time folds one story into another.

“The Utterances” describes two characters, “Naif, an innocent, with Rebel, some species of outlaw,” carrying a body through the city. They speculate on the origins of this body. “Do you think he was a soldier?” Then the gender of the body comes into question, “Don’t sound like no she to me.” As cannibalistic ideas arise, this sharp dialogue shifts into a halting poetic verse.

A body can be. Recovered. People get rags. People.
Dust people move. On about. The work. Of living.
Every time. Unsettling dust. Sending. Dust back.
Into air. Breathe dust. In the body. Again. We were
not fugitive by choice but by nuclear declaration.

The book is a critique of language as a means of conveying ideas. It’s even a critique of ideas, and how our culture shapes our perception of those around us, the people we consider friends and family, how shifting perspectives can change our position in our socially constructed hierarchies. It reimagines text and print as an art form. It’s a dialectical piece.

It’s about memory. It’s about how we define ourselves in relation to others, and how we express love to each other. It’s about bodies, about bones, about media, about communication beyond language. The story rises subconsciously through repetitive verse, and the format of the text provides a visual variation on call and response. This is a deeply thought-through piece of art that calls its readers to meditate on the nature of memory and imagination as well as the means that we use to convey our desires.

Carlos Sirah’s The High Alive: An Epic Hoodoo Diptych is a unique publication, challenging readers to explore their own memories, theories, and philosophies. Twisted in its rendering of the human condition, the book provides space for meditation and inspiration. Deeply sad, offering no resolution to suffering, this text excites original ideas as well. It’s a book like no other. It creates a sense of intimacy with experiences that are inaccessible. It is a piece of performance art, and print is essential to the overall presentation.    

Caleb Nelson

Caleb worked as an Aviation Electrician (AE3) for a Super Hornet squadron, U.S. Navy 04-08. He earned an MA in Creative Writing from UMass Boston in 2015. His work has appeared in Write on the Dot, The Baystate Banner and The Dorchester Reporter.

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