a review and interview With Wayne Miller
Wayne Miller, Post-
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
2016, 90 pages, paperback, $16
Post- is an open wound, an elegy peeled back, a lamentation for change in our construction of violence and fear. As I began reading this collection, I was caught off guard by the heightened pitch of violence juxtaposed with a child’s unaffected engagement with destruction, as in “Hoax Bomb,” where investigators “sifted the remains / like children through scraps / of wrapping paper.” It is a relentless undertaking; Wayne Miller asks his readers to look at the links between the capacity for and expression of violence. He contends that directly looking is the first step in the cessation of bloodshed, dissolving the boundaries between abstraction and physicality.
Miller’s Post- is a book of a “pressurized dark,” concerned with the confrontation of death in all spaces, most substantially the manifestation within the landscape of cities and the home. The death of Miller’s father is the point of return. Amidst the outside noise, his father’s presence commands stillness, so that the internal amplifies the external. In “Post-elegy,” the alternating of couplet and single-line stanzas mirror the oscillation of grief; the appearance of multiple works titled “Post-elegy” serve as reminders of the active process of grief, one that is never fully quieted. In “Landings,” the dead are only discoverable in pieces, as the sequence glides through scenes that call attention to how sorrow is aroused and housed in minute moments: “it’s good to remember: / butterflies / will sip blood from an open wound.” And while Miller understands the impossibility of clarity in the midst of what appears to be endless scenes of violence that have been ingrained in our American consciousness, he continues to push his readers towards empathy, to understand, as he writes in “On Language,” that “[l]ooking, too, was a kind of crossing.”
The collection opens with “The Debt,” where debt is extracted from the solely consumerist connotations and grounded in the kaleidoscopic nature of mourning. This certitude of grief introduces the collection, and Miller has his thumb on this awareness throughout. As I was reading, I found myself asking: to whom do I owe? With Miller’s insistent repetition of “debt,” indebtedness is wedded to the American experience. In the final lines, “with love and genuine pride: one day / all this debt would be mine,” the burden of silence shouts through the space between couplets. Each iteration of “debt” becomes more difficult to endure.
In “Some Notes on Human Relations,” the machination of brutality is foregrounded in the confrontation of cognitive dissonance: “We sat on both sides of the table.” In lines like “then we had no mind,” Miller reminds us of the easy ways we are guilty of perpetuating violence through silence until “[w]e stood across the field / and pulled the row of triggers.” Miller’s lack of punctuation and truncated lines create a snowballing effect where the lines’ divisions begin to blur. The rhythm enforces a claustrophobia that highlights the inescapability of the violence at the core of his collection.
Post- asks us to contemplate what in modern America can succeed the prefix. Miller answers ferociously and repeatedly: elegy. In “The People’s History,” he offers an expansive commentary that showcases America as both war zone and burial ground. Miller asserts our collective complicity in this violence. In lines like, “some piece of them has been removed— / like a fuse. The true People are a surface / that floats on the sea of our fathers—,” he is calling attention to how easily history is rewritten through the “language of power.” In a society obsessed with identification and compartmentalization, Miller refuses this impulse, casting everyone as a part of “the People” in our new civil war, the weapons of choice earplugs and groupthink. He begs the question: How do we separate the surface from the sea?
In his penultimate poem, “On Breathing,” Miller uses the same urgency to draw a city at its most capable of peace. He explodes the strict dividing lines between humanity and nature—“[l]ook: the sky begins / just above the ground”—until the poem serves as a collective breath. Hinging on the community of body and city, the feathering frost is a symbol of life amidst our denial of it.
— Meg E. Griffitts
Micah Ruelle Interviews Wayne Miller
I was struck by how much Post- felt—for me as reader—a departure from both The City, Our City and Book of Props. Why did it feel like there was so much space in the world of this book (“He entered through the doorway of his debt”)? And that’s when I realized that maybe the word I was looking for was absence (the debt, death, etc.)? I felt the presence of the “city” (the bodies, energy, etc.) so strongly in the other books. But Post- seems to be about the “negative space” for the speaker in a city (I’m thinking specifically of “Image: Postmodernity”). Could you comment/speak to this sense?
When Post- first started coming together, I saw it as a conscious shift toward more “traditional” lyrics after the book-length sequence of The City, Our City (and, to a lesser degree, after experimenting with multiple characters in The Book of Props). So perhaps that simple shift toward a more traditional lyric contributes to what you’re noticing.
Post- is also a more domestic book than The City, Our City. “The Next Generation,” for example, is about urban rioting—which could easily have been subject matter for The City, Our City. But here the riots are viewed from inside the speaker’s apartment, where (for better or for worse) he largely ignores them in favor of attending to his work and family. The city is still there, in other words, but it’s often buffered by domestic spaces. Add to that the “Post-Elegy” poems about the death of a parent, and those “private” concerns often work to separate the reader from the commotion of the city.
Can you talk about what the process was like to take a reoccurring theme throughout your books, the city, and make it nearly unrecognizable and completely fresh every time, but especially in this book?
When I can clearly articulate to myself the kinds of moves I’m making in my poems—when they feel automatic, rather than surprising—I try to seek out other approaches. That said, my obsessions—both aesthetically and in terms of subject matter—don’t really change. (I suspect this is the case for most poets.)
For most of my writing life I’ve been fascinated by cities. In my first two books, cities are either the settings for poems, or else lie just beyond the horizon as objects of longing. In contrast, The City, Our City was a world-building project focused on viewing sociopolitical conflict through the contextualizing lens of history.
When I sent Post- off to the publisher, I thought it was a kind of synthesis of my earlier lyrics with the socio-historical concerns of The City, Our City. I still think that’s true—but now, looking at Post- with a bit of distance, I think its biggest departure might actually be its more regular use of allegory or extended metaphor (in poems such as “On Language” and “Image: Psychotherapy”).
Robert Lowell said, “The poem is the event—not the record of the event.” I appreciate the way Post- addresses so many things, but specifically history, economics, and the American identity (I’m thinking specifically of “The People’s History,” “Consumers in Rowboat,” and “The Next Generation”). With such large topics, it could be easy for any writer to get lost in logistics (i.e. what actually happened). Could you talk about the tools/strategies/processes you use in order to effectively weld the lyric and narrative in these poems?
In Post-, I’m generally using the narrative of what happened (or what’s happening) with a specific intellectual or rhetorical goal, rather than simply narrating events as they occur(ed). In “The People’s History,” for example, I use the narrative of a protest and a subsequent riot to think about how, when viewed from a sufficient distance, sociopolitical conflict looks mostly like a big group of people attacking itself. At the end of the poem it becomes clear that a teacher is speaking the poem to his students—who then rebel against his idealized notions of them. There’s a lot of action there, but it serves the explorations/argument of the poem.
Maybe the most “action-filled” poem in the book is “Ballad (American, 21st Century),” about a sequence of mass shootings. The poem began when I realized I was starting to conflate multiple shooters in the news into one faceless shooter—so in the poem it’s the same shooter who keeps popping up impossibly around the country. That helped me introduce multiple locations and events without having to address a lot of logistical details. It’s also intentionally unclear in “Ballad” how much of the poem is actually happening vs. how much exists in the speaker’s fearful imagination—which further allowed me to blur and elide details that might otherwise swamp the poem.
I should add: it’s retroactively that I can see how these moves helped me. When I was writing the poems I spent much of my time mucking around in an attempt to keep the poems from exploding out of focus.
In a recent review of your book, Hamann notes that one of your “poetic gifts” lies in your “ability to invoke real-world events such as mass shootings, riots, and assassinations and fold them into the wide scope … without exploiting them.” Can you talk about how you’re able to accomplish this on a craft level?
I went to a super-lefty college where questions of identity, appropriation, and historical subjugation were front-and-center in virtually every conversation. On the one hand, it completely makes sense to me that we should be wary of approaching the world from vantages from which we have limited knowledge—and white Americans have to be utter dummies not to consider the legacy of white supremacy and racism in American history, politics, and economics.
At the same time, I’m not convinced the empathetic imagination is so weak that we’re incapable of putting ourselves, however cautiously or limitedly, into others’ shoes. And, of course, if we categorically reject all work that “appropriates,” we have to reject the Porgy and Bess songbook, “Strange Fruit,” the Rolling Stones, Huckleberry Finn, and The Snowy Day (just to name a quick few).
I can’t speak to how other writers think about this, but when my poems address “public” concerns or events they tend to view them from a certain, abstracting distance. For example, some of the details in “The Next Generation” and “Hoax Bomb” draw directly from events that happened when I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on a Fulbright in 2013. But I don’t have a personal stake in Northern Ireland’s internal conflicts, so I’m wary of writing too specifically about that subject matter. And I don’t really need to; riots and “hoax bombs” happen everywhere. What matters is that the world of the poem feels specific and real, not that it feels like a specific place in the world beyond the poem.
It’s also worth saying that I’m partially compelled by The Witness of Poetry, in which Czeslaw Milosz argues that poetry provides “testimony to its epoch” through the witnessing lens of the individual—a lens that embraces the complications and paradoxes of the moment rather than tries to simplify them into historical metanarratives.
When I’m starting to put together a collection of poems, I sometimes wonder if an audience 100 years from now might get a sense from the book of what it was like to be alive in 2016. What have I failed to articulate from this moment? What have I left out? Of course so much is always left out—but particularly in “public” poems I’m more goaded by the idea of representing the world I/we inhabit than by engaging in what Yeats would call, dismissively, “rhetoric.” Perhaps that emphasis on representing rather than engaging limits the capacity for exploitation? At least I hope that’s the case.
And, if it directly connects with your revision process, can you speak to that specifically?
I’m a slow and obsessive reviser. It takes me a long time to see what my drafts are up to—so early on I’m often nudging the work in the wrong direction.
For example, “Image: Postmodernity” has at its core the image of a snowplow clearing a narrow space for itself to travel. For more than a decade I commuted back and forth between Kansas City and Warrensburg, Missouri, where I taught. All winter the snowplows on 50 Highway gave me, as Frost says, a lump in the throat. But it was months after I wrote the first doodle-y draft of a poem that I realized those plows had been articulating something about our intellectual and artistic moment. As soon as the poem was reframed, I only had to make a few minor adjustments to snap it into focus.
“The Debt” and “Allegory of the Boat” feel like such large presences in Post- —real stunners about the imagination that seem to bookend the collection (for me). Can you talk about strategies you use while figuring out the order of poems for a collection?
I didn’t think I would begin the book with “The Debt,” though the brilliant poet Brian Barker—one of three writers I sometimes share drafts with—suggested it early on. But after various organizing strategies, I realized I wanted the book to feel more intimate than The City, Our City, though I still wanted its concerns to be “large.” “The Debt,” I decided, was the poem that best managed that simultaneity, since it occurs at the intersection of a domestic space and sociopolitical policy (i.e., the essentialness of debt to the “American Dream”). Brian, of course, had seen this right away, but it took me more than a year to arrive at it on my own.
“Allegory of the Boat” is similarly a poem where large concerns meet the domestic, though here the central subject is more abstract, since what the boat allegorizes is never clearly named. Perhaps the poem is effective at the end of the book because the allegory is open to a number of possible subjects the book has, by that point, raised.
Finally, what are three books or poets that you wish you had read sooner as an MFA student?
I love this question! Here are three writers I wish I’d read in grad school:
Dante: How did I not read Dante in grad school? The Divine Comedy is the ultimate “project book.” (When I read Dorothea Lasky’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Project” I kept thinking, “Um, OK—how do you square this with Dante?”)
Simone Weil: In particular, her essay “Human Personality” (trans. Richard Rees) sticks with me.
Gabriel Zaid: His book-length essay So Many Books (trans. Natasha Wimmer) is a stunning, lyrical meditation on our wonderful and problematic overabundance of books.
And here are three I’m glad I read as a grad student:
Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark: a book-length lyric essay. For me it’s an essential book, full of aphoristic brilliance and meditative intimacy—set on a winter visit to Venice when Brodsky knows he’s dying.
Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives: A theoretical book that’s foundational to my thinking about language and conflict.
Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed (trans. Linda Asher): a brilliant collection of essays on the value and purpose(s) of literature.
— Micah Ruelle
WAYNE MILLER is the author of four poetry collections: Post- (Milkweed Editions, 2016); The City, Our City (2011), which was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award and the Rilke Prize; The Book of Props (2009); and Only the Senses Sleep (New Issues, 2006). He has cotranslated two books by Moikom Zeqo—Zodiac (Zephyr Press, 2015), which was a finalist for the Pen Center USA Award in Translation, and I Don’t Believe in Ghosts (BOA Editions, 2007). The recipient of the George Bogin Award, the Lucille Medwick Award, the Lyric Poetry Award, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize, and a Fulbright to Queen’s University Belfast, Miller lives in Denver with his wife and two children and teaches at the University of Colorado Denver. He co-curates the Unsung Masters Series with Kevin Prufer and edits Copper Nickel.