Playing With War Poetry

If you search hard for work by Walter James Miller, you'll probably find his annotated edition of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea before you find his book of poems, Making an Angel, or any poem he's published, for that matter, unless you're a junkie for small literary journals. But Miller has been producing steadily since the '50s, everything from poetry and verse drama to short stories, radio interviews, and books on engineer writers. Love's Mainland: New and Selected Poems attests to where the 83-year-old writer and academic has been as a poet, and why he's worth searching out if you haven't heard of him until now.

Miller's poetic roots are sunk deep into an American modernism that found a worthy lyric subject in people and machines at work, incorporated into poetry the rhythms of jazz and the blues, and wrote of the Second World War as its "Great" War. The "average heroes" in his poem "Noon Whistle" are demigods descending "steel stairways . . . from their hammered iron oath," into a quotidian "barren lot" where they'll knock off for lunch, and then return to work. In "Old Surfcaster Blues," the poem from which the title Love's Mainland comes, the music of Michael Harper, who we might imagine has retired to his native Brooklyn and taken up fishing, carries Miller's "undulating/oceanic/love"— "Wading out/through lisping breakers/that tickle gonads/then reach for nipples . . . (O Yes See Them!)/like July August/between this spit of sand and love's mainland." And as with the early poems of James Dickey and Richard Hugo, the reader is never far in this collection from a poem about remembering the men of war, "forever questioning the tenants of combat,/pressing them for still more iron details."

Elegies to friends and poets, like Louis Zukofsky and Chester Kallman, tag Miller as a writer who has outlived much of the generation that schooled him. But one of the surprises in Miller's poetry is that his roots and influences haven't been deadened by a nostalgia for the narrative. With all the stories he could tell about his modernist beginnings, and all of the music he employs, in these poems Miller seems most interested in the sheer joy of linguistic playfulness. Weighty themes of love, war, and death just refuse to take themselves that seriously. Love (sex, really; Miller writes a lot about sex) becomes bowling, "ten prim dirndls/cream pudenda/pricked seriatim/by remote cuntroll." War is reduced to flatulent "gluteal squeezes in reverse/impotent frets for the fatal focus: O FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!" And death is only, in the end, the griefless, silent spondee, "That's that." This marriage between linguistic invention and the beautifully mundane is signature Miller.

Linguistic invention is signature Miller.
photo: Harry Heleotis
Linguistic invention is signature Miller.

Love's Mainland is not all poetry. In the middle of the collection Miller has placed his popular verse drama Joseph in the Pit, and its positioning makes it clear that Miller considers this more an act of poetry than of drama. What Miller gives us is poetic midrash, the countertext of which is a Joseph out of Hebrew scripture with more and earlier insight into his own story than the traditional biblical account allows. The boy tossed into a pit, then sold into slavery by his envious brothers, is not an arrogant and passive dreamer but a visionary who "speaks with Jacob's voice," saving his own life to save his family.

The play, however, feels forced and unnecessary amid the poems. Miller's aural strength should make the verse an event that sounds at least as powerfully as it acts. But the attempt to write midrash that also evokes an ancient oracular tone results in a tedious sprung rhythm that becomes increasingly harder to listen to—in this case on the page—as the play goes on. Reuben, in one instance, asks himself: "Before this sudden brotherscud floods out the flames/with blood/can Reuben's love bank the fire, huddlehoard the flame?" And Joseph, in a visionary moment, stares at Reuben and exclaims, "Behold I have dazedreamed another daymare." The conceit is compelling, but the verse sounds overwrought.

Miller's vitality as a poet whose work spans several generations is not the result of any unique direction he's forged, or the amount of poetry he's produced. Love's Mainland is only Miller's second volume of poetry since 1977. But that's the curious thing about Miller, and about these "new and selected" poems. There's a vitality in the fact that they are crafted, pared down, concerned only with the fact of their life on the page, and still somehow larger. While you might have read about love, labor, bravery, and death in other poems by other poets, you haven't seen them yet from Miller's vantage point, or heard them played in quite the same way. This isn't poetry that's going to create a great deal of discussion about aesthetics on the cusp of the centuries. But this is poetry worth searching for if you're interested in what it sounds like to read the work of a poet who seems still to care about the old "making it new" after all these years.

 
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