In the spring of 2016 I saw Wayne Miller give a reading at Brazos Bookstore in Houston; his presence and voice immediately sold me on the work. He read all the best poems from Post- (Milkweed Editions, 2016): “The Debt,” “The People’s History,” and “Consumers in Rowboat” which are the poems I am interested in for this review. Miller is one of those poets whose voice matches his work: he reads with quiet wisdom, with complete egoless sincerity. It is a comfort to hear him speak.
In Miller’s fourth full-length collection, he opens up the landscape with a deeper exploration of the personal, but also, a stronger awareness of the current state of American life. “The Debt” is the perfect poem to begin this book: “He entered through the doorway of his debt, / Workmen followed, bringing box after box / until everything he’d gathered in his life / inhabited his debt.” This is the best first poem out of all the books Miller has written: sharp, precise and conversational, but contained. “The Debt” introduces a political thread throughout the book that is slightly radical and exciting. “The People’s History” picks up this thread and takes it further:
The People moved up the street in a long column—
like a machine boring a tunnel. They sang
the People’s songs, they chanted the People’s slogans:
We are the People, not the engines of the city;
we, the People, will not be denied.
Then the People
descended upon the People, swinging hardwood batons
heavy with the weight of the People’s intent.
“The People’s History” is a joy to read because it is so direct and rhythmic. The poem winds down the page with great momentum; it is energetic and commanding. “Consumers in Rowboat” appears a few pages later and continues this insightful thread:
Out the window the dogwoods are tousled with blooms,
big smudges of white.
In the morning, the consumers
work in the yard—he splits logs,
she paints the gate—
consumers in love in their house on the street
where the newspaper slaps like a hand to the stoop
There is so much to love about these seven lines: “dogwoods” “tousled with blooms” and “big smudges of white” are pure imagistic beauty. The rhythm of “he splits logs / she paints the gate” is delightful and then “where the newspaper slaps like a hand to the stoop” is solid, meaty and fun to say out loud. The energy, music, and images in these seven lines represents the best of what Post- has to offer.
A good way to describe Miller as a poet is the voice that speaks in “The Affair”:
He found himself threaded through the mouth
by his only narrative, the body that held it
propelling him forward, the light of that narrative
reaching out to strike the ground before him
in his only voice.
Miller is at a crossroads. He has proven in his previous three books that he is a master of formal verse. He has earned the right to let his hair down a little. While I was reading Post- I began to wonder what some of these poems might look like if they were opened up a little more. For example, “Post-Elegy” is a poem of intense emotion where the speaker finally decides to shed the weight of his dead father, and the opening line is quite powerful: “For four years, I kept your ashes in the trunk of my car—.” The poem is split into two sections; it is less constrained than some of the other poems in this book. Here is what it looks like in its entirety:
For four years, I kept your ashes in the trunk of my car—
they rode with me to work and back home
along the highway’s greased tube of air.
Someone would say: what a perfect
American burial. Evenings, I pushed the remote
and the garage door unsealed like the door of a crematory.
Then, all night, the day’s accumulated heat
slipped out of you. I never even
removed the box from its postal packaging.
Finally, I took the box of ashes to the beach
where once I’d watched you swim,
drunk, in the turbulent
aftermath of a hurricane. I tumped the dust
at the lip of the waves and they swallowed it up.
It was easy as that.
What if he took it further? What if it looked something like this:
For four years, I kept
your ashes in the trunk of my car—
never even removed the box
from its postal packaging.
Finally, I took the box of ashes
to the beach where I watched you
swim drunk in the aftermath of a hurricane.
I tossed the dust in the lip of the wave
and they swallowed it up.
It was easy as that.
This version eliminates the extra narration, doesn’t use phrases or words like “highway’s greased tube of air,” “turbulent” or “tumped” which distance the reader from the personal grief of the speaker. This version is more spontaneous and lyrical, which is what I think the poem wants to be anyway. My impression from this book is that Miller is moving toward a poetics of distilled musicality. Take for example, a poem like “The Mind Sliding” which begins:
around the body
like a clot—now lodged
in the tapping foot, now
in the groin, now fanned out
in the hand on the book. Meanwhile
the foot still taps—what
does it have to do with anything?
This kind of open, rhythmic verse is exciting. I wanted to see more of it in the book.
Norman Dubie talks about how he took several years off from publishing because he felt like form had constricted his Muse. Sharon Olds talks about the personal thrill she experienced when she first wrote a line that went all the way to the edge of the page. It would be interesting to see Wayne Miller explore the personal thrill of a more open form, which I believe Post- is already attempting to do in small ways. He should take the leap and immerse himself in it.