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Memory at These Speeds: New and Selected Poems
Jane Miller
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,

a downpour
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 spontaneity:

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 life imprisonment."

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.

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review

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