High Peaks. David Crews. RA Press, 2015.


Reviewed by James J. Donahue  




           A beautifully engaging chapbook (one specifically designed to be carried by hikers), David Crews’ High Peaks is based on a series of hikes through the Adirondack Mountains. Undertaken over a period of two years, the hikes that form the basis of Crews’ verse are documented in the front matter of the book, and accompany a list of “The 46ers,” or the 46 Adirondack peaks that have been hiked by the more than 8,000 members of this exclusive club (of which Crews is a member). Included in this front matter are the names and elevations of the peaks, as well as the details of the poet’s individual hikes. This information serves as but only the first moment in this collection where Crews extends to his readers an invitation to hike those peaks on their own. In fact, such an invitation runs throughout this collection, which is as much a love letter to these mountains and the joy of the outdoors as it is a poetic transcription of one hiker’s experiences.

           Following a short epigraph from John Burroughs’ essay “The Adirondacks,” which serves as an invocation of the majesty of the mountains, Crews includes several poems that subtly bring us into the mountains, at times almost as a member of Crews’ party. For example, in “Big Slide” the “you” addressed by the speaker is simultaneously another member of the group of hikers as well as us. Noting that “it’s not crazy to talk / to the mountains” (subtly adding a third addressee to the poem), the speaker ends by nothing that “the forest / echoes voices, some lifting above / falling mountains streams” (6). Here, Crews weaves together the members of the party, his audience, and even the mountains in a quiet conversation. Such conversation, which alludes to the community one finds among hikers, is alluded to again at the end of “Whiteface,” where “At the top / I take off my boots, socks, and listen / as people call out the mountains they see” (21).

           In a similar vein, in “Trail Confessions” Crews closes the distance between the speaker’s experiences and the reader’s knowledge, reaching out to non-hikers in explaining how the realization of successive false peaks is “kind of like the space / between falling out and in love again” (10). This distance is again closed in “Allen, aka The Loneliest Mtn.,” where the previous “you” to whom the poems are addressed becomes the “we” who “share the mud, share / the rocks and blackflies, the heat / and sun” (16).  Throughout this collection, Crews speaks directly to the reader, often mixing his personal reflections with advice for the inexperienced, as with the closing words of “Moss”: “Hope for light rain, clouds / at the summit. Bring a jacket” (19).

           More directly—though not with any loss of artistic grace—”Trail Etiquette” provides important points on the shared rules for the hiking community, from how and where to handle bodily waste, to the right-of-way of trails, to yet another connection between hiking and love: “While carving yours and your / sweetheart’s initials into a giant / elm tree will ensure the two of you / will remain in love forever, consider / instead leaving no trace” (18). Here, Crews takes the dictum “leave no trace” beyond simple littering; we should avoid all means of defacing the beauty we find throughout these trails. As such, Crews continues to invite and instruct his readers simultaneously, hoping that they will visit and respect the Adirondacks.

           Crews’ love for and knowledge of the region are also reflecting in the number of poems devoted to providing his readers with history of the mountains. Poems such as “Algonquin,” Verplanck Colvin,” “The Santanonis,” “The Marshall Brothers,” and “The Sewards” provide such bits of background as the various names of the peaks (in Iroquois as well as English) and facts about the first explorers. And while the poems do serve to keep some of that history alive, Crews also reminds us that the mountains will outlast us, as well as the names we give them: in “Algonquin,” Crews reminds his readers that the peak was “First called Mount McIntyre after / an Archibald who owned and operated / McIntyre Iron Works” (8).

           Ultimately, like all good volumes of poetry, High Peaks is as much about language and art as it is about its ostensible subject. In addition to the various poems concerned with the naming of peaks, “Fourteen High Peaks Facts” notes that “Waterproof is not a real word, everything’s / soaked by mile four.” Or, more broadly speaking, the words we use do not—perhaps cannot—accurately reflect the world. Another “fact” Crews provides for the reader is that “Maps don’t lie, the way up’s longer” (13). We may try to document these mountains, but our efforts are doomed to failure. Perhaps this is why Crews closes “Sawteeth” with what has become a common question for him: “Why / don’t you take pictures, people ask” (26).  Can any document—a map, a photograph, even a poem—hope to do justice to these mountains? Instead, let’s go into the Adirondacks and experience them on our own. Because, as Crews reminds us (obliquely alluding to fellow traveler Walt Whitman) in the appropriately –titled final poem “High Peaks,” “You know how it is, / to find me again look under your bootsoles. / There’s a music even in the mud. Listen for it” (30). By the end of the collection, Crews convinces us to explore the Adirondacks for ourselves. Who knows, they might even find Crews on those same trails. (And if we do, we should remember that “People hiking / up hold the right of way” [18].)






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