ON Wayne miller’s post-
MILKWEED EDITIONS, 2016
REVIEW BY DANE HAMANN
It is telling that Wayne Miller uses a prefix as the title for his new collection of poetry, Post-, since it continues where his previous collection, 2011’s The City, Our City, left its readers. Aftershocks from that collection rumble through Post-, shaking the raw but recovering world Miller has carefully crafted. Post- carries on the sweeping narrative of Miller’s archetypal “City” established in his previous work, his new poems scythe-like in their sharpness and instinct for understanding the sinuous course of history.
The first poem in Post-, titled “The Debt,” introduces readers to a new, post-upheaval world. Gone are the threats of winter and war and the turmoil of large-scale change that hung over Miller’s previous collection. Instead, this first poem reminds readers of everyday problems such as mortgages and credit card payments, making it an unlikely lead-off poem. However, Miller infuses these issues into his landscape with almost playfully cynical lines:
The dark woods
stretching inland were pocked by lightfilled cubes
Miller often paints a beautiful scene and then quietly reveals the underlying risks that threaten it, thereby illuminating many incongruities that echo the real world. “The Debt” shows the delicate balance of scenic neighborhoods that could easily grow dark and worn as money and lines of credit run out. The end of the poem effectively passes the torch between the collections:
Each visit, we smoked on the deck
and, over drinks, he reminded me
with love and genuine pride: one day
all this debt would be mine.
The implication of these last lines is subtle but clear: the citizens of Post- have inherited the world wrought within the fires of The City, Our City as well as the burden of past debts.
Miller further examines debt and consumerism as acts of both threat and constructive hope in the poem “Consumers in Rowboat.” In this poem, two “consumers,” representatives of an educated but debt-carrying middle class, own a picture-perfect home where “out the window the dogwoods are tousled with blooms, big smudges of white.” However, they feel the burden of this debt, as they perform household chores during the day but also “lie in their room / fearing death, fearing loss.” Ironically, debt, a pillar of the contemporary era spanning Post-, supports growth. The poem’s narrator remains elusive, but ominously encourages the couple to “be good consumers // remember your debt, the economy needs you.”
In perhaps the most frighteningly contemporary poem in the collection, “Ballad (American, 21st Century),” the nation is compartmentalized into spaces infiltrated by danger and terror. One of Miller’s poetic gifts is his ability to invoke real-world events such as mass shootings, riots, and assassinations and fold them into the wide scope of his poems without exploiting them. In “Ballad,” a gunman threatens every moment and every space of the poem:
That spring, the shooter was everywhere—
shot from our minds into the hedgerows,
the pickup beds and second-floor windows,
the hillocks and tentacle live oaks. And sometimes
he was tracking us with the dilated
pupil at the tip of his rifle. His bullets spun
into the theater’s stop-sign faces, the tessellated
car lots beyond the exits; they tore holes
in our restaurants and vinyl siding, those fiberglass
teacups we clamored into at the county fair.
The loss of both identity and control is profound. Nowhere can a person hide without the possibility of a bullet finding them. The citizens in the poem can only cower, practice futile drills (“arm the students (desks!) / for counterattack”), and watch for news of the gunman’s capture or death. The poem essentially acts as a list of spaces and ways in which gunmen or the threat of them infiltrates those spaces.
Miller is clearly fascinated by the spaces people inhabit and how those spaces often fashion their identities. A pair of seemingly interconnected poems, “The People’s History” and “The Next Generation,” examines the link between the spaces of classrooms and building-hemmed streets. Specifically, “The People’s History” describes a deafening street demonstration full of slogans, songs, and assertions of humanity that escalates to violence as rooftop snipers fire wax bullets and dogs are released. However, Miller blurs the scene until it is impossible to differentiate the battling sides, which are both referred to as “the People.” It is revealed toward the end of the poem that the preceding lines were a lesson being delivered to a group of children. It is possible that these same children then appear in “The Next Generation,” where the conflict no longer pits “the People” against “the People,” but rather children against authority:
have risen into the air—lit orange
from flares and cars set ablaze—they circle
above us; we try to pull them down but the kick
and soar higher. The newscasters explain
and explain them, clutching them in language
they never would use—language that lifts them
(but they’re already flying!) out of the streets.
Although Post- takes place in a world where poisonous debt can be concealed by a sense of beauty or happiness, the children of the classroom are not fooled into complacency. What happens on the streets is taught in the classroom, which then inspires more action on the streets, as the powerless (the children) seek to escape or extinguish the injustice of ill-deserved authority. The authorities, represented by police and newscasters, have foisted an identity—one that the children “never would use”—to explain and perpetuate the idea of the children as powerless and single-mindedly destructive. But importantly, throughout the poem the children are rising above that identity, flying out of grasp and control of the authorities. The parallels between this poem and real-world events need no further explanation, but the agency with which the children say “There I am” at the end—once they have come home to watch a broadcast of themselves flying above everything—is a defining moment in the collection. The boundaries of these different spaces and the identities cultivated within them are broken and a sense of autonomy is gained.
But surprisingly, despite danger and fear saturating many of the poems, Post- is not a dark book. The poems address death and violence with a sense of recollection, as if the dangers have already subsided and the world has begun to heal. Threads of growth and renewal weave throughout the book, touching and lightening many of the spaces within it. For example, in “Swallows” a correlation exists between the renewal of human life and the natural world. The narrator of this poem seems awestruck by birds delicately swooping between the field and trees (“such flawless // precision!—”) and while watching a heartbeat via ultrasound:
We watched her heart
blur and unblur—
a deepwater vent.
Throughout Post-, Miller surprises his readers by adeptly creating quiet, reflective moments. In “For Harper, 20 Months Old,” a baby monitor crackles, and rather than reach a sense of recognition or understanding as readers may have expected, the narrator marvels at the renewal of life:
and the unknowable
becomes in that moment
Indeed, Post- is much like a reservoir, its hyphen suspended over its readers as if we were meant to fill it. Volumes of Miller’s precise and resonant language flood every space within this book, creating a world of both gritty intensity and thoughtful poise. As a collection, Post- carries significant momentum, as the living spaces within it evolve and change as time surges forward. As Miller writes in the penultimate poem, “On Breathing”:
Now, again, this entire city rises and falls.