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Poems for the Heart and Mind
Leslie Adrienne Miller’s First Five Books
by James Naiden
Leslie Adrienne Miller was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1956, the middle Eisenhower years, and was raised there during the tumultuous aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s death and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Her father was a judge, her mother a grade school teacher and active volunteer. Many of the poems in Miller’s first full collection, Staying Up For Love (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1990), hearken back to Ohio, her parents, and her sister, as well as countless friends, lovers, and acquaintances along the way. She graduated in 1978 from Stephens College in Missouri, studying under teachers such as Heather McHugh and Jonathan Holden, and then went on to graduate school in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she studied with Larry Levis. After receiving her M.A. in 1980, she got married for the first time and worked low-pay jobs, earning money on her own rather than retreating to Ohio and her parents, or for that matter to her husband. Her first marriage produced one riotous poem. Here are the opening and closing lines of “The Monkey”:
My first husband had a monkey,
a little spidery job with a winning
smile and quick hand. Oh, it was
dirty to be sure. Those things carry
all kinds of diseases. This from
my mother who was the gladdest
when her children grew out of pets.
Maybe I even married that husband
because of the monkey. After all,
it could carry an egg under each
armpit indefinitely, or until our
amusement waned . . .
I took it when I left because
it was all I wanted—the image
of the eggs dropping from the armpits,
the head cocked, waiting to see
if I’d laugh or give chase.
Of this poem, Miller told an interviewer that she liked to use it at her readings because “it’s fun to read out loud, it’s got rhythm and humor, people laugh aloud at it. But it’s ultimately a very sad piece. I was proud to have achieved both emotions in the piece.”1 Her childhood in Ohio and her relationships with her parents and her sister were formative experiences for her. However, she had begun writing poems very early. “I’ve been writing poetry from the time I was able to read,” she remarked some years later. “For a long time, I didn’t even realize you could make a career out of it. When I went to college, I soon figured that out.”2
Her first marriage foundered over the disparate interests she and her husband had. He wanted her to have a baby and settle permanently in their suburban house in Missouri. She wanted to write and go the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her M.F.A. degree. So she filed for divorce and headed north. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was particularly influential for her at this time. His advice about the solitude a poet needs was something Miller recognized she needed in order to write, to think, to reflect on her craft. She enrolled at Iowa in the fall of 1980. “I cannot blame Rilke for everything,” she reflected later, “and I have never been sorry that I took him so seriously then. The premium my culture put on solitude for the artist is hardly Rilke’s invention. It simply spoke in Letters [to a Young Poet] to the would-be poet in me, but it appeared everywhere in the literature I was reading by men and by women.”3 At Iowa, she studied with poets Marvin Bell, Jane Cooper, Donald Justice, Henri Coulette, and again Larry Levis. The work of other poets—such as Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Carolyn Kizer—also spoke to Miller’s conscious ear and eye as she continued to work at her own poetry.
By the late 1980s, Miller was in the Ph.D. program in literature at the University of Houston. She was writing poems as feverishly as ever while she studied with writers who would challenge her. “I worked very closely with Cynthia MacDonald,” she said. “I chose Houston, in fact, because of her. I wanted to work with a strong, feminist senior female poet, and Cynthia filled that bill. She was very commanding and challenging, and she made me measure up.”4 While at Houston, Miller also worked closely with Ed Hirsch, Richard Howard, and Adam Zagajewski.
Never was there uncertainty about what she should do with her life, as in these opening lines from “Definition”:
I love the efficiency of my body at thirty,
the way my shoulders and calves finally have
that sharp stroke on the curve, the way
those dimples over my knees have unwrinkled.
It was impossible to love any of this
any sooner. All those years under shame
when any part of the body that emerged
seemed pale, veined, waterlogged, and not
always quite my own. Sometimes
just a glance in the mirror: that white
backside exposed, otherly . . .
Perhaps taking a cue from Rilke, Miller avoided the temptation to write love poems. None of her poems is what one might think of as sentimental, yet there is a sensitivity to living creatures that abides throughout her oeuvre. Her poems tend to be self-excavations and descriptions. Being restless and highly peregrinative, Miller has developed a focus and authority in her poems since the beginning. “I’ve been working on creating a type of rhetoric that’s authoritative, a strong voice that commands,” she said in 1990. “But I want the subject matter to remain very female. That will create the tension that I’m looking for in the work. We tend to identify authoritative rhetoric with maleness; yet if you marry that with feminine subjects, the result is very interesting.”5 It’s a matter of voice, of control, ultimately. Miller is acutely conscious of what other women poets have done before her and are doing in her own generational sphere. “Miller’s craftsmanship shines in measured form and lyrical rhythms,” wrote Molly Glentzer in a brief notice of Staying Up For Love, “whether she’s brooding about the mood of a lover, contemplating childlessness or lamenting the cruelty of a story on the six o’clock news. Her voice is delicate, but rooted in the earthiness of her middle-western upbringing. These are fine—and accessible—poems.”6
In the title poem from that book, Miller recounts a slumber party she attended as a girl in Ohio. Here are the final lines:
Because Susan and I are the last
to drowse off our elbows and sink together
we whisper we adore each other, wiggle closer.
Tomorrow Sally’s mother will suck in her breath
a little when she comes upon Susan and me
raveled and damp as adulterous lovers;
Trudy’s mother will purse her lips and scrub
at the blue imaginings on Trudy’s behind,
and the frog will be put back among his stones.
There is a tension here between “vaguely sexual imagery,” wrote Marianna Hofer, which “balances beautifully the innocence and the imagined evil.”7 In the next poem, “An Early Meeting With Men,” Miller follows the memory of adolescence’s boundary testing with her view of the opposite gender. The poet’s control of her form is exquisite in two shimmering lines early in the poem:
I hear my voice tinkle like a spoon
into the stentor of men.
As much as one can harness language and content within a single poem, Miller has done it here. Indeed, her view of men seems cautious but inevitably accepting, as in the poem’s closure:
I look down at my bare female arms
brushing the institutional table,
the close room sending my skin damp,
sending the perfume of aloe around
to the men, their expansive noses
sweeping in only as much air
as they need for speech.
The poet as observer as well as participant is a role Miller embraces. Her poems celebrate the observed moment, even, as in “Influenza,” a poem about a lioness put down for injuring a child that deftly melds vicariously absorbed information and first-hand observation during acute physical discomfort. Other poems, illustrative and poignant of a given situation in the poet’s milieu, are “The Man in the Courtyard,” “Celibacy,” “Tracks Were On The Frosty Lawn,” and “Deer Harvest.” Citing Miller’s poems using the method of a “narrated lyric,” an anonymous critic opined that Miller’s “facility with language distinguishes her from most other purveyors of this genre,” while adding that “Miller knows what’s she doing, and the poems evidence her formidable control over her medium.”8
Throughout Staying Up For Love, memory plays a crucial role. There is also the matter of perception, of how accurately one perceives how the past—whether immediate or distant—haunts the present. Take, for example, these lines from “Primary Colors”:
She puts the white away and takes out the black. She
remembers how her mother told her black was not
for young women, and indeed her culture wants of
black hats, black cats, etc.
“For Miller, there seems no boundary between the need for beauty in one’s poetry and in one’s life,” wrote Susan M. Schultz. “That her central theme is erotic love only bears this out. She would agree with Elizabeth Bishop, who considered life and art to be the same. And, like Bishop, Miller refuses to simplify the equation between life and art, and she also knows the dangers of falling in love, not with The Future, but with the past . . .”9 Schultz quotes two significant lines in one of Miller’s poems: “Memory is fond of itself, / inventive, selective, even false.” It is true that memory may play tricks and be emblazoned as more important than it really was at the time, in one’s present life from day to day, week to week, as the years unfold. Miller’s work is partially ruminative of her past, but not obsessed by it. For her, the past is a source of poetry, but not directive of the present, whatever today’s problems may be. At the end of her review, Schultz amplifies her view of Miller’s achievement in Staying Up For Love: “Miller’s poetry does something that the poetry of statement . . . cannot do, which is to show how language—attenuated, sometimes broken—can help us to communicate, almost despite ourselves. It shows us that art need not approximate artlessness in order to heal the severed connections between men and women, black and white, poet and reader.”
After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Houston in 1991, Miller moved north to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she took a teaching job at the University of St. Thomas. By now she could add south Texas to her list of memory sources from which to write poems. In 1994, her second collection, Ungodliness (Carnegie Mellon University Press), appeared. The first poem has some striking images. Reflective of her dissolved first marriage and the uncertain present, Miller is still ruminative, but not morbidly so. If anything, her candor, even when exorcizing painful elements in her past, is a refreshing staple of her discursive style, as in the opening lines of “Walking Around My House In The Dark”:
The armchairs are silent uncles who came
to my wedding and never danced.
In the shadows thrown by the outdoor light
they stand, arms crossed, the only family
I have who refuse comment on my behavior.
They neither love nor judge me,
the niece who later up and left
the slim, red-headed husband they glimpsed
across the plastic sparkle of a small town
country club dance floor. They hold
down the edges of the room with shoulders
squared like waiting genies and watch.
Miller’s directness, as intimated above, is a high mark of her style. Listen to the final lines of the poem as she attempts to bridge the silence rather than embrace the isolation of estrangement:
driving tractors through pungent alfalfa,
loading trucks with someone else’s worn
furniture, closing deals on insurance, seeds,
houses and sheep, please sit awhile longer
in my dark, deep with regret,
unintended silence, ruined weddings,
and let me tell you why.
Fred Eckman noted the candor with which Miller uses her personal circumstances in her work. About her poems, he observed, there is no shrinking from difficulty: “Absolutely without self-pity, they are as ruthless in their depiction of the cruel, snobbish, self-centered girl as of her family, friends and teachers.”10 Yet again, how does biography influence the work? It would be inaccurate to say that Miller remains at home and stays in one disinterested poetic mood. The poet is rueful, even amused, and ultimately ironic and unremitting, as in these closing lines of “The Police Tent At The County Fair”:
Even now I sometimes smile at cruel
news, and I still don’t know
where it comes from—that flinching
at the corners of the mouth when one body
suddenly and fully comprehends the end of another.
It is in poetic closure, as Eckman suggested, that Miller is strongest. Another critic concurred: “Leslie Adrienne Miller presents a series of ordinary images which seem to roll along smoothly until, almost casually, they zap the reader with more intensity than one at first thought. She makes us see anew.”11
Miller’s second book received favorable notices, with critics remarking that her almost brutal honesty about herself, her past, and her family members, does not obtrude. She is not settling scores, but rather explaining her past through the cynosure of the poem, using this vehicle to shed light on herself. “Ungodliness . . . is a nearly perfect collection,” wrote Richard Broderick. “Not only do the individual poems achieve a balance of form and content, but they work together superbly as a book . . . Her territory is the ‘ungodliness’ of everyday life—the shadow side of human consciousness: the jealousies, resentments, hurts, angers, and wild, often self-destructive urges that we normally try to keep hidden. A postmodern romantic, she is fascinated by chaos.”12 Broderick was also insightful when he observed that Miller is not “confessional” but “supple” and “energetic,” even “lyrical” in her verse. One excellent example of this is “Substitute,” in which Miller remembers a substitute teacher in her 8th-grade English class who had had a baby without a husband. For this, the substitute teacher was judged unworthy by some members of the class, including the future poet; they decided to punish her by not answering her questions. Here are the concluding lines of this forceful, though amusing, poem:
. . . Scum, I thought, as I snuck
peeks at her creamy skin, the svelte navy skirt
she couldn’t have worn when it happened.
I drew horses on all my notebooks,
swelling their withers and flanks,
topping them with girls who filled
their hands with streaks of mane,
blissful, reckless, while the substitute
went on invoking correct pronouns,
agreeing verbs, and we / us, I / me
dismantled her, her breasts, her lover,
her speckled scarves and dainty feet,
whatever we could conceive of her sex,
and carried it away in doodles, reveries,
silence, to the great cache of our rich
and dangerous unknowing.
It is natural to appreciate such a motley but cohesive collection as Ungodliness. Miller uses the grit and the small triumphs in her life, and the faces and personalities of those she meets along the way, as objets d’art in her poems.
Her third book, Yesterday Had A Man In It (Carnegie Mellon University Press), appeared four years later, in 1998. By this time, the poet had done some extensive traveling abroad, to various places in Europe as well as Asia. A number of her poems reflect this travel. As she told an interviewer, travel for her is a sense of renewal:
The enemy of poetry is familiarity. I travel to evade it, and although it is impossible to evade it permanently, one can evade it over and over again with many goings and comings. Travel keeps the world fresh for me. I know that I will return home to discover much I love there, whereas when I left, it was all so familiar I thought I could not abide continuing to live there. It’s the old idea of defamiliarization—a term from the Russian writer Victor Shklovsky. The idea that the artist, the Western artist, must find ways to look at the ordinary that make it seem strange. Travel to foreign countries is one of the easier ways to effect this defamiliarization. It freshens one’s perceptions, disturbs and disrupts habits. I can only hope that the poems I have written here will look very different when I get home, that I will even wonder who it was who wrote them and that many of them will require adjustments for American readers whom I needed to forget for a while.13
An early poem in the third book, however, is set in Minneapolis at a rock concert in Loring Park. Miller is acutely conscious of the burgeoning youth around her at this festive event, and not a little incredulous at the culture not of her own generation. Here are the opening lines of “Babes in Toyland”:
I understand why the lead singer
wears cheap yellowed lace, the A-line dress
chopped just below the hip, unhemmed,
why her hair, greeny with bleach,
glows glossy, hideous in the August twilight.
She is a studied mockery of all it has meant
to be female in the Western world,
the unreserved embrace of death itself,
agent of its own destruction, spoiled,
droll and gaudy as a plastic bead.
She can do this because she is still
baby doll pretty, petite, her bare white
legs folding like bent saplings as she spits
and fumes, mocking her own anger.
It is not surprising or at all uncommon for a poet of Miller’s caliber to want a different experience, to go where others of her generation might not go or might not want to endure the cacophony. At any rate, these middle lines amplify the poet’s amazement at what she sees and hears:
I do not understand the studied ugliness,
the small gray girls bobbing and gaping like wounded
birds in front of the stage, a grimness that is sleek
only one or two. The rest deliberately
disheveled as rape victims, pretending the worst
has already happened to them.
In another vein, Leslie Miller experiences the culture as many of her generation of women do. In this context, physical exercise under the guidance of an expert instructor, the poet takes her place with others. She records the experience in precise, unrhymed couplets in “Rite of Winter,” evoking kinetic energy:
Some evenings we scream in aerobics class—
if we feel the bass in our bones,
if the teacher goads us, if it’s Friday
and January and the class is full,
suddenly, of hefty women with resolutions,
I among them, to pound away at the last
five years, the harangue of old hips.
Some of us yowl, some screech or bellow,
some even whinny—which we wouldn’t do
if we thought men were looking,
but they aren’t. It doesn’t hurt
that there’s a full moon tonight, that outside
it’s 10 below, that the air is so dry
it whispers in the lungs, that it’s 1994 . . .
In Indonesia, Miller comes down with a fever, just as she is about to leave the country. Toward the end of “At The Bandung Emergency Room,” she sees differences:
I come from a country
of drinkable water and curable mysteries.
But here, affliction is the easiest way
around difference. Because I am permanently
pale, your blonde doll, your beleaguered
traveler, because there is no way for me
to turn my hot gaze on your world
without changing it, I must give up
my fever, and you your ministry . . .
And Miller evokes irony in her work, perambulatory as the otherness in another person, in the title poem’s closure:
This happened to someone at least once,
a luckier woman many times—or unlucky
if you believe this is a kind of hope
that rarely finds its mark. Empty
fairgrounds, abandoned airstrips, a field
bruised with some remarkable event,
the usual parks. One luminous glance
and the hope returns like a trained bird,
the light diffused around its homing
The air around the kiss she gets
brief and sweet and almost real,
so later she can sleep in the thought
of it—yes, that bud may open tomorrow—
though tonight she’ll wake confused
by the momentary odor of otherness,
her own hair buried in the pillow.
Critical reaction to this book was mixed. One reviewer was skeptical. “These obsessively dense poems are products of a formidable will,” wrote Thomas R. Smith. “The problem is that poems of will, which twist each effort toward a thesis—that men are untrustworthy, say, or that one is unloved—preclude the possibility of true discovery, which may be the chief grace poetry offers. Yesterday Had A Man In It comes up short for reader and poet.”14 But the patina of feminist rhetoric, perceived or not, should not dissuade a perspicacious reader about the merits of the poet’s achievement. Andrea Hollander Budy observed: “Many of Miller’s poems explore this familiar, human terrain that only poetry seems to be able to expose satisfactorily.”15 Yesterday Had A Man In It offers a rich assemblage of Leslie Miller’s talent, recognizing her own identity as a woman while at the same time not being obsequious to the male desire to control the conversation, the discourse, so inherent in poetry. Like Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich before her, Miller is particular and undiminished in her voice, registered in deftly composed metaphors and allusions. And while certainly intense at times, this does not by any means prevent a pluralistic appreciation.
Eat Quite Everything You See (Graywolf Press, 2002) is the allusive title of Miller’s fourth collection. The title poem and many others in the book are reflective of a brief time she spent living in a house once owned by Jacques Prévert in the south of France. The poet and the landlady got along very well, as in these closing lines from “Prévert’s Peaches”:
Three times she married, and never once for love. We laugh,
wet mouths stuffed with Prévert’s colossal sweets,
and their honey jotted on our wrists. We swallow fruit
and azure air as if we’ve always known what we know now,
What drives our lush capacity for greed. The more
we give ourselves, the more we can afford the heart’s caprice.
Eat, she says, inviting me to take the painter’s chair,
another Prévert peach, eat quite everything you see.
Miller’s love for travel continues to inform her work, broadens her world-view, and augments our own grasp of what a poet can achieve in images and well-wrought metaphors. The poet herself is quite sanguine about the ingredients of her poems and her methods of working. “I wanted to explore the relations of poetry and painting,” she explained to an interviewer at the University of St. Thomas, “and so I devoted a lot of poems and reading time to exploring seeing versus saying, the relations between text and image . . . I wanted to see if I could make a kind of poetry that behaved like a painting, a poem that could actually look at the way one looked at a painting for color, line, shape in the language, spatial relationships.”16 Indeed, as one reads this volume, one sees the broad palette the poet uses to make her finely etched poems. In “The Anarchist,” Miller captures the essence of this stunning light:
The houses could be rocks, the rocks could be roads,
The boats could be doubts or birds. That’s what
art is for: to remind us that we have not seen
what we remember having seen. If I say
Mediterranean to you now, all this will freeze
into azure, and you will lose the richly actual
to mere knowledge, the terrible stillness
that keeps the eye from going too far.
The critical reception to this volume was generally positive. Miller’s travels and her veritable romances leave anything but the proverbial trail of tears. She “takes us to many lands, both interior and on the map,” wrote Pamela Miller. “The book’s mannered but wry title reflects its many tones. Appetites of all kinds parade across the pages. Raw sensuality mingles with strong awareness of mortality. Humor and sadness collide in many of these poems.”17
Color and shifts of tone broaden the poet’s ability to depict situations, milieu, atmosphere, and physical surroundings—as in these opening lines from “Mise en Abîme”:
We enter, all eyes cast about at once
to identify maker, made, the precious few
who might consume, review the evening’s
order, light, and wine, signature black
stockings, tailored jackets. We know the frame
repeats itself as a trick, the icon of the invitation,
beckoning for weeks from local shops, café,
patisserie, tabac. . . .
Since this book’s publication, Miller has achieved an ambition on her own terms: to give birth in harmonious circumstances. She married for a second time in 2000, and in 2002 had a son. By now she was in her mid-forties. However, before her second marriage, she wondered what it would be like to have a child. Shopping in a women’s boutique, Miller conjures what might be possible in these opening lines of “Imagining Myself with Child at Forty”:
I paw through row on row of black strapless
dresses hung on loops from the armpit seams,
bouclé, swarms of beads, sequins and pearls.
We’re looking for holiday clothes for me,
my friend and I, something to cover
the rough beast of my hope concerning
a man, while she pushes her new daughter
along before her and hugs the next in her womb.
In the company of a woman friend on this occasion, the poet keeps her private perambulations to herself, but they are as real as flesh, blood, fire and the rich scent of food:
. . . I feign helplessness, hand to temple
shrinking, suffering, or just plain sultry.
A pack of hounds, golden-haired and sleek, wait
at my feet for the curls of cold on the sleeves
of the next visitor to bring a whiff of that world
they were born to. They do remember it distinctly,
the extravagant stink of what so recently
was fierce and floating, glistening gristle
and scales, festive blood and flecks of bone,
the crystal air, birds flushed from dry grass,
rodents stirring in moss banks, and oh the preen
and pucker of marvelous fish zipping beneath thin ice.
The critics could not miss the direction of Miller’s allusions. “In Leslie Adrienne Miller’s new collection of poems, we peer into the most intimate places in her life,” wrote Diane Wilson, “following her across Europe, through relationships, into the dressing room where she imagines herself with a child at forty. Driven by a hunger for experience, Miller’s elegant poems emerge from her desire to understand what she consumes, whether it be the torment of love or the comfort of a pair of bedroom slippers.”18 There were naturally observations on her “palette” of colors, gradations, flavors of food, and local atmosphere: “Miller’s poetic voice is honest and insightful,” wrote Marjorie Buettner. “Her poems inspire and instruct showing us how the sweetness in life of ‘cadmiums and light’ may fall to us unexpectedly. Her poetry tells us again that what we thought was lost is really regained in a different form; what we expected never to see or feel again comes back to us—this expectation of love—with grace; Miller’s poems remind us in a heartfelt way how to be sustained by life: eat quite everything you see.”19 There are a number of other delicious poems in this collection, such as “Panorama Place,” “Lingua Franca,” “One Moon View of Puget Sound,” and “The Many Faucets of Love.”
Miller’s fifth collection, The Resurrection Trade (Graywolf Press), appeared in 2007. The history of this book’s conception, pun not intended, is important. The birth of her son in 2002 provided the now middle-aged poet and new mother a change of focus—forgetting, or at least ignoring, her past. It’s worth remarking that few poets go for more than one advanced degree in Creative Writing, but Miller acquired three beyond the baccalaureate, the second of which necessitated the breakup of her first marriage. She never looked back. Now for her fifth book, the principal theme inspired by her pregnancy (which she knew would be her first and last), the poet surveyed her own circumstances. She now focused instead on women in the past—the late Renaissance through the 19th century—who were, after their deaths, used as vehicles for medical research. From this came the English term, “resurrection trade,” the physical dissection of female corpses, some pregnant, and then artistic depictions of them in realistic, frequently unpleasant, drawings, such as one on the front cover of The Resurrection Trade.
As noted, Miller’s penchant for ridicule of the male gender has led to, if anything, her objectifying men. Thomas R. Smith noted that in her previous volume, Eat Quite Everything You See, “men are untrustworthy.” One has to say that his observation has been borne out in this fifth collection as well. Miller’s high intellectual discernment has led to a questionable direction. Denigrating the sex act, as Miller does in poems such as “Anatomy of the Unsought Finding,” is too easy and predictable.
In this vein, if one emphasizes the positive, there are several poems displaying Miller’s command of irony and use of mnemonic devices. When years earlier she and her sister had to endure listening to their parents host a party, the ludicrousness of adult behavior is vividly portrayed, as in the first quatrains of “Bridge Club”:
It comes back to me as a tangled after-dark cackle,
female, roughed up by cigarettes and scotch,
wakes me into the possibility that something
is being missed. A fleet of card tables set up
across three rooms, an armada of liquor bottles
lining the kitchen, mother cooking the “company”
dish out of a book. My sister and I, bathed,
pajamaed, are handled, smeared with scent
and coo by the ladies, teased and pinched by the men.
Father presides over vodka, gin, rusty Manhattan mix,
a shaker with cartoons of busty ladies toasting mirth.
after I Dream of Jeannie and Gunsmoke I’m put down
in my bunk which shares a wall with the party,
so I wake each hour hearing the laughter turn,
fill with silliness and edge: tatters of gossip
doused in the toilet’s incessant flush.
Allusions to the television roles played by Amanda Blake and Barbara Eden, mixed with resentments against perceived parental shortcomings, make for a measured irony: “I hold on to her single / wrong note and know it’s a gift . . . ”
Other poems are more readable than the title poem, written in both English and French with Latin phrases thrown in to establish the poet’s scholarly credentials. Genevieve Kaplan found the book a mixture of accomplishment and pretentiousness. For Kaplan, the book “straddles the fine line between poems that at times can be overtly academic and off-putting and poems which are universally inviting and lyrical. While some elements may prove difficult for an ‘average,’ non-academic reader, many of the individual poems are intrinsically enjoyable, as well as socially and emotionally resonant.”20 This ambivalent reaction attends particularly to the title poem, meticulously rendered, but tendentious—as if the poet’s indictment of men in general extends justifiably because of the dehumanizing “resurrection trade” abandoned long ago. Still, lines such as these are not easily forgotten:
Coifed, composed in a manner suitable
for rendering in oils, she rests her elbows
on the swell of gray and surely dead (d)
infant intent on reading his own fat knees.
Below which: les parties du Sexe feminine détacheés
Read: detachable female sex parts
“The author’s tendency to obscure inherently interesting facts and details instead of presenting them plainly is ultimately disappointing,” Kaplan opined further. Stan Rubin underscored the positive. In a long review, he gave evidence of a careful reading: “Read as a whole, the book becomes a delirious trip through the history of this project of exploring, rationalizing, and thereby controlling, the mysterious geography of the female Other. Inevitably, it’s an accumulation of good intentions gone awry.”21 In the next paragraph, he writes: “Miller provides the missing female voice. To her credit, she is not interested in material for its ‘shock value.’ She is neither a polemicist, re-contextualizing what she discovers in terms of contemporary ideology, nor a prosecutor fixing blame.”
Miller’s usual killer endings for poems are not always as forceful in this book as in previous collections, but still the overall breadth of her work has a vivid impact. As others have noted, Miller’s academicism sometimes gets in her way as a poet, with five pages of notes and a bibliography at the back of this volume, although the consensus is again mixed. “With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Miller chisels away at the image of woman as sexual object, showing how women can find meaning and truth and ultimately their humanity through reclaiming their bodies,” wrote Michelle Crosnoe. “Miller’s writing is imagistic and powerful, scientific and visceral . . . . The Resurrection Trade is well-written and hard-hitting, fearlessly confronting the same old problems through a marriage of themes, a union sure to stand reading after reading.”22 One can understand Crosnoe’s defense of Miller’s intentions without being convinced the poet hasn’t overdone it. To pick up on Crosnoe’s analogy in another sense, is a sledgehammer what one looks for in poetry? Is this what a poem needs? Of course, subject matter can make a great difference. Irony is most often an essential ingredient in poems of social statement, as in this case. Miller has brought this tonal element to her work frequently from poem to poem, book to book.
Then again, an artist such as Miller is bound “to find some unusual interests” during pregnancy, as Judy Woodward observed.23 Still, Miller’s son is never mentioned by name in the book, other than in the dedication. She refers almost mechanically to “my child” or “this child” or “my son.” But never does “our son” come across in the narratives from poem to poem. Nor does the reader learn her husband’s given name, although by inference we gather his surname. There are no poems alluding to domestic hearth or affection. Rilke’s advice notwithstanding, this is notable and disappointing from one perspective.
Sea Stachura, the public radio reporter, delivered an illuminating commentary on Miller’s approach to poetry and this book in particular. Woven around interview clips with the poet, Stachura emphasized the ameliorative aspects of Miller’s achievement, something males never have to think about—the objectification of women’s bodies.24 What Stachura did not mention, however, is that one might well argue that Miller in turn has objectified men’s bodies and maleness—for example, both her son and his father, whom we never get to know through her poems, other than the constantly arch reminders to her second husband that before he came along she had many lovers. This theme undergoes a reversal in The Resurrection Trade: while the poet is in Paris researching material for this book of poems, she learns though an email that back in Saint Paul her husband has been unfaithful:
I fight down
the unthinkable news delivered
at dawn e-mail: someone else
is in my marriage bed, her broad thighs
loading up on genes, the very same
that give my son his dazzle and dash,
his own sweet power to sunder.
(from “Parlous In Paris”)
There are a number of superlative poems here, aside from the arguable nature of the title effort— “Shopping For The Queen of England”; “Hydrologic Sonnet”; “Mantra of the Bath”; “The Death of Irony”; and particularly “Mother and Son,” in which the poet’s sister, recovering from a mastectomy, is told by her small son to pretend she is one of the Twin Towers, as in these opening and final lines:
The night after the twin towers evaporated in jet fuel
and dust, my nephew asked my sister to stand up
beside his bed, her arms drawn tight along her hips.
He was clear about how he wanted her, straight, tall,
as rigid as possible. He’d said his prayers, read
his bedtime story of a girl with golden hair locked
in a stairless tower by a witch whose motives weren’t
entirely clear. He’d seen the footage at school that day . . .
This is how he’d wished
to learn: whether to be sad or mad, but his mother
doesn’t know herself. In tears, she takes the downed bear
and bewildered boy in her arms, and hugs them and hugs them
against the changed landscape of her womanhood.
One is reminded of Jim Moore’s poem about this event, “9/11/01,” written in eight quatrains with a final line, as Miller’s poem has, separated at the end.25 Miller’s poem is in unrhymed couplets, Moore’s in closely rhythmic quatrains. The final lines of both poems suggest that one’s sense of isolation can be bridged in being with others at such a time. It has been said that Moore’s poem is a unique response. I suggest Miller’s poem, originally published in Great River Review, is a worthy complement.
Throughout her five collections, Leslie Adrienne Miller displays a fountain of senses, images, and colors, inviting her readers in as she explores her own rich history. She uses her wide reading, travels, and interactions with people she has known along the way to create a lustrous array of poems and thereby enriches American literature.
1 Jeff Troiano, “Leslie Adrienne Miller,” Siren (Houston, TX), November 1990.
2 Stacy Atchison, “Five Questions With . . . ,” The Daily Iowan (University of Iowa newspaper, Iowa City, IA), 4.
3 Leslie Adrienne Miller, “Alone in the Temple: A Personal Essay on Solitude and the Woman Poet,” Kansas Quarterly, 24:4, Spring 1993, 13 (manuscript).
4 Letter to the author. 1 November 2002.
5 Jeff Troiano, op. cit.
6 Molly Glentzer, “City Insight,” Houston Metropolitan Magazine (Houston, TX), January 1990.
7 Marianna Hofer, review of Staying Up For Love, in Ohioana Quarterly, Volume XXXIII, Number 3, Fall 1990.
8 Unsigned review of Staying Up For Love, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Volume 66, Number 3, Summer 1990.
9 Susan M. Schultz, American Book Review, June-July 1990.
10 Fred Eckman, review of Ungodliness, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 19 June 1994.
11 Unsigned review of Ungodliness, in Ohioana Quarterly, Volume XXXVIII, Number 3, Fall 1995.
12 Richard Broderick, in Minnesota Monthly, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 1994.
13 Heid Erdrich, “An Interview with Leslie Adrienne Miller,” A View from the Loft (Minneapolis, MN), September 1998, Volume 21, Number 2, 14.
14 Thomas R. Smith, “Two collections mine autobiographical vein,” (a dual review with a book by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni also discussed), Minneapolis Star Tribune, 8 March 1998.
15 Andrea Hollander Budy, “Poems for Poetry Month,” Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 26 April 1998.
16 Pat Nemo, “Speaking of Books,” University of St. Thomas publication, summer 2002, 15.
17 Pamela Miller, “Five poets expose their regional affinities in new collections,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 14 July 2002.
18 Diane Wilson, notice of Eat Quite Everything You See, in Minnesota Literature (Saint Paul, MN), Volume 28, Number 1, September 2002.
19 Marjorie Buettner, “This Expectation of Love,” The North Stone Review (Minneapolis, MN), 2002, Number 14, 321.
20 Genevieve Kaplan, “From The Academic To The Lyrical,” American Book Review, November/December 2007.
21 Stan Samuel Rubin, in Water-Stone Review, Volume 10, Fall 2007.
22 Michelle Crosnoe, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, 2007.
23 Judy Woodward, Twin Cities Planet, 29 March 2007.
24 Minnesota Public Radio broadcast, 1 April 2007, Sea Stachura, reporter.
25 Jim Moore, “9/11/01” in The North Stone Review, Number 14, 2002, 286-287. Thus, his final line: “This is the day we must begin. This is the day. We must begin.”
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