I keep using the word "rangy" to describe the poems in Alicia Mountain's High Ground Coward. By rangy, I mean both range-like, an openness, a big sky feeling (Montana is present throughout), but also rangy, as in ranging around, taking in a large swath of observation, experience. I want to say the poems feel restless because of this ranginess, but they don't. They feel more certain and seductive in their confidence; they're just loose-limbed and not interested in closing all the gaps.
The poem "Heard Each of Us" is an example of this rangy-ness explored through relation, connection, disconnection. It starts with the speaker describing a rumor they'd heard about the "you," "when I heard you were gone to the desert." This news makes the speaker do something odd, "I lifted my half-drunk half-jar of wine / over my head and tipped it." We learn "in a miles-long cellphone stretch, / the last thing you said was gone." Do you see how each of these lines takes space and distance and pairs it with another line that also emphasizes space and distance? This is where it gets open, loose, looser, but then Mountain uses brackets to contain "[When I am alone out there / can I call to you?]." Makes sense. When we're "gone," we often desire not distance, in the end, but closeness. However, the speaker resists this bid for closeness (presumably by the "you"), "my answer was no. / don’t call out for anyone. / that's the point:"
(If you're paying attention, you're likely noticing the lack of capitalization, the odd space with the colon ending the sentence. With anything like this, I always ask whether it's gimmicky or part of the meaning of the poem. Here, I side with meaning because this too is about distance and space and casualness-that-is-actually-depth, that-is-actually-pain just shifting around under the surface.)
What's after the colon? "how you forget the selfish sound / of each of us." More distance in the act of forgetting, the act of being detached from what is selfish, the need to connect. It's hard to read the tone in this line—sad, resigned, urging—so you have to turn to the final stanza, with its image that returns us to the speaker, the wine seeping down her head to her jeans, leaving "stains like dark vinegar, / but only the smell of their cedar drawer hiding place." We know the stain is wine, but when the speaker wears them, she tells others "I gave my spleen to coyotes for the winter / and they left a howling pond in me." To me, this is the poet telling me what the poem is about: loss, but doing so in a way that discounts it, that makes it the vulnerable thing that ends up as a badass story that covers over the wound made by the disconnection from "you." It's the poet admitting that, like most of us, she longs for connection, she's selfish for love, even though she knows it demands something that she hopes the "you" can escape in the loneliness of the desert.
The cover of Mountain's book is a muted orange that looks like a mountain, that evokes the "high ground" of the title and Mountain's last name, a nice echo. And yet, that "coward" suggests a hook. There's something very soothing about that cover's design and tone, just as there's something very cool about Mountain's voice, a cerebral sensuality that isn't invulnerable, but wry and self-aware.
- Ruth Williams