Memory at These Speeds: New and Selected Poems
Copper Canyon, $15 (paper)
by Karen Volkman
"Above all else the figure the figure in the landscape" writes Jane Miller
in the poem "Sympathtique." This selection from her five volumes both supports
and complicates that declaration. For Miller, the figurative evades the limiting
frame of narrative foregrounding; dispersed rather than described in these
poems, her human figure resolves itself in fits and jolts from a field of
dissonance, media, technocracy, eros. Her persona, half-reverent, half-hip,
cultivates scatter as a kind of necessary mutation, the quick-cut as backbeat
to random, terrestrial song.
Jarring as the juxtapositions are, they rarely come off as principally ironic;
Miller may toss Post-Toasties, mylar, or MTV into her empassioned ruminations,
but her purpose is to accrete and encompass, not to undercut. In "Sycamore
Mall," the first poem of her expansive fourth collection, American Odalisque,
she fuses the surreality of a consumer playground with the equal, though radically
other, stylizations of a Venetian affair:
It'll be a while
before we are hoisted & joined as characters on a screen in sepia tone
for a theater inside a mall under the influenc of temperature control.
Painfully one day we wake & haven't the right
clothes for Venice.
[ . . . ]
A simple pear from a painting, or the marble hair of the David,
bandages art places over our eyes,
survive in Renaissance books next to the jog & diet shelf.
Michaelangelo & Giotto appear naked to the touch,
holier because no one is fully conscious nor ever able
to forget anything under the false light of the dome,
Our Ladies of the Air Conditioner, the Air Freshener,
the Night Moisturizer.
Blithely heretical, mall architecture quotes the lofty domes and looming
arches of church and temple, while food court and fountain serve as uncanny
analogues to communal space, all designed as unconscious appeal to dormant
longings for ritual and community. Miller has immense sympathy for such misplaced
reverence, in which she is unabashedly complicitous; an American insistence
on the superlative in all things--the wildest romance, the most perfect art,
the freshest air, the smoothest skin, the firmest thigh, the fastest car,
the deadliest weapon, the hottest fuck--fuels the charged, mobile surfaces
of nearly all her poems. (American Odalisque's title is self-implicating
enough; the static seductress knows who plots the postures of her allure.)
Miller's two most recent books, Odalisque and August Zero,
make up over half this ample selection, with the first hundred pages devoted
to new poems, a sampling of her first two books, and a group from Black
Holes, Black Stockings, prose poems written in collaboration with Olga
Broumas. The first collection, Many Junipers, Heartbeats, reveals a
gift for extravagant diction that will intensify in the later work: "Please
take this shy Spanish girl / whom they say you resemble / and ride with her,
here are the field poppies / damaged by night, here your blue slumber, your
horse." Drawing much from the lavish lyricism of Neruda and Lorca, these dreamy
but sometimes precious poems only hint at the raggeder romantic who will eventually
emerge: "I have to // prolong this because women like it that way. Only three
men / have ever spoken to me about failure. Inside my hazel eyes, / blue and
green flares shoot off, impossible to detect unless / you love me." A far
more poised collection, The Greater Leisures smooths the edges of jagged
jumps to an elegant, seamless drift:
Quail, a missing cat,
and two hailstorms
in one day are equal
access to knowledge
and join writers
in their separate mornings
in the beauty of an act
you spoke about,
placing a candle in a tree.
Sensual knowledge is essential knowledge, Miller repeatedly insists, and
that value expresses itself in her intense faith in association as revelation,
the deepest source of both mystery and meaning. Miller modulates these intuitive
discoveries through a deft consonantal music and a widely varied range of
line length and stanza shape--the terse lines of "Three Secrets for Alexis,"
quoted above, work to measure and restrain its hushed nuance, while in "Black
Tea" a longer line propels the topple of sensual imperatives: "Damn the spring
that turns to winter again, o permanent / green grass, that turquoise of your
famous eyes I eat // like a cow a horse an ass awake all night, following
an idea that pours / over me ice and Russian in origin."
More problematic is the prose poem selection from Black Holes, Black Stockings.
Collaborative poems risk the danger of coming off as being written by committee,
and this group suffers from that failing: the chosen poems bear little resemblance
to either Miller's or Broumas' work. Both poets have an interest in body and
breath and their role in shaping line and pacing; not surprisingly, they seem
stalled and stunted by this blocky form. The hectic images that provide momentum
in so many of Miller's finest pieces here read as simple overpopulation, an
airless density: "the sweet golden beads with their interior lights guided
by destiny guiding night travellers beyond, back or askew into the not-here,
the knot in the crossroads where they must tire and halt like a girl caught
in her hair where the teeth of the combs are too tight together . . . ." Not
surprisingly, she has rarely assayed the prose poem in later books. (Broumas
was much more successful in her 1993 collaboration with poet and classicist
T. Begley; their Sappho's Gymnasium, composed of eerie aphoristic fragments,
reads like a riot-grrl descendant of the Greek Anthology.)
American Odalisque marks Miller's full leap into mature poetic mode.
Her lusher effusions gain astringency from an achingly palpable heartbreak,
and from an increased awareness of technology, commodity, politics: swoon
meets zoom. "Forever is getting faster," she writes, even infinity compelled
to keep pace with the culture of buzz. As always, she takes the cosmos personally,
but here with a cannier, more skeptical edge:
I adapt the rhythms of my actions to the affairs of the earth
maybe you don't want to be loved everyday and maybe I don't
is it arbitrary or is it intuitive?
I'm just going out for a moment
[ . . . ]
all I want to preserve is the landscape
a guy walks into a bar throws down $2 adjusts his nuts & orders
the end of the century cries out
now tell me did you get up like this at night as a child?
on the pretext night wasn't made for children
This sexy, high-speed shifting of diction and tone marks a change in velocity
from the earlier books, a widening perceptual field that takes swerve as reckless
imperative. Though similar tactics guided poems in the preceding volumes,
the degree and intensity of propulsion gives a poem like "Miami Heart" a delirious
In a long text, on live tv, in an amphitheater, in the soil,
after the post-moderns, after it is still proven
you can get a smile out of a pretty girl,
after the meta-ritual lectures,
after the flock to further awareness bends "south,"
and Heinz switches to plastic squeeze bottles,
as one flies into St. Louis listening to Lorca's "Luna, luna, luna . . . ,"
beyond Anacin time,
after, God help us, the dishwasher is emptied again,
and Miss America, Miss Mississippi, reveals she has entered 100 pageants since
age 6 . . .
Employing parallelism, Miller heightens the disparity of her listed elements
(none are in sync), broadening her quick ear and eye to encompass a dizzy
swathe of everyday American absurdity. Her Whitmanic "blab of the pave" decenters
time and location, drawing dream, sky, gizmo, schtick, and slogan into an
intrepid relational orbit.
For August Zero, she embellishes her project once again, depicting
nuclear terror and the human contingencies it dictates:
come now to the tips of the roofs, come now to the lake
lip, to the entryway of the tunnels, to the counting house;
air the eiderdown, steam the rooms of the lovers, break
the fistfights from their arguments, marry the maid--
live a little in the afternoon asking,
--now what do I do?
Elsewhere, the poems construct frightening, apocalyptic landscapes, the threat
of extinction established in prophetic opening gestures: "we hear explosives
destroying the weapons, / we see the chemical sky gild the clouds," and "Fire
under the mountain, fire under the lake," and "The human sigh commuted to
But despite the excellence of much of this later material, the selections
from American Odalisque and August Zero may disappoint those
readers familiar with the individual volumes; in some cases, weaker poems--such
as the sanctimonious "The General's Briefing"--seem included simply to showcase
Miller's versatility. These sections read at times like a miscellany, a jumble
which while charming fails to reflect the original collections' fragmented
cohesion. This may be inevitable in a Selected, particularly for a poet of
Miller's predilections, whose books, refusing a more willed architecture,
hold together on intuition and nerve.
Jane Miller is hardly alone in demanding that the structures of her art reflect
the compulsions of consciousness, but unlike poets who allow pallid abstraction
to attenuate emotion and song, Miller, as late millennium supplicant, won't
relinquish extravagance, seduction, rapture, as essential elements of a poem's
brash presence. Her human figure, careening through its volatile relations,
"charge card in hand," indebted and reverential, makes of shatter a kind of
atomized coherence, a kinetic, compassionate form.