“Impermanence and Racial Otherness in Jim Warner’s Actual Miles”

Actual Miles, Jim Warner’s newest collection of poetry, is a moving compilation of diverse pieces reflecting experiences of a hybrid identity, life in transition, addiction, romance, and mortality. The culmination of which reveals an overwhelming familiarity with the ebb and flow of impermanence. Impermanence pervades this collection, whether present in the form of a challenge, a question, or an echo that simply exists in the background as a reminder that nothing is forever. Warner uses verse, prose, and altered forms of complex prescribed structures to communicate that change, good or bad, is inevitable. The book is broken up into ten segments of varying forms and lengths, each separated by a vivid, fragmented, and untitled poem.

The collection’s first two sections reflect on memories from youth. The first expresses challenges that the speaker faced in early childhood, the feeling of being other in a white world, captured aptly in statements like, “You don’t look Asian.” This kind of unintentional questioning of his identity and experiences, the combination of racial challenge and eventual identification leads him to the internalization of his otherness: “The only chink in the neighborhood / was always building railroads”—a sharp image juxtaposing the childhood sandbox and the legacy of Asian labor that built the American rail system. The second section dives into life in the Philippines, where the speaker remains foreign in his identity, although this time, in his whiteness. “She wants nothing / but your winter skin. Pinay has never seen snow.” Somehow, in his hybridization, he is other in both worlds, a child in flux. The differences between himself and his family are apparent, as the section opens with “my mother asked for a coconut cage to be / built around my heart” and as his cousins build around him, chewing cigarettes they ask, “Who is this boy with such a fragile [heart]?” These contrasting images show the fluidity of race, and the challenges it poses to a young boy lost in between. The brief but powerful, “sorry another word in Tagalog I don’t know” both separates and connects these first two sections; a bridge that reflects the unknown should’s that come from children of two cultures.

As the book progresses, the memories transition to those of an adult, tinged with nostalgia and reflecting years of cyclical experiences that, no matter how varying or meaningful, are evanescent and never to return to their original form. He dwells on how transition asymptotically nears its own end: “Accumulation—be it blood / by the drop or snow by the flake— / becomes more about the clock and less / about the math.” He describes a cigar box full of memories that “smell like the eventuality of ash.” This constant intermediate state, leading to the inevitable, accumulates until we reach the end of the book. It is in transitions between poems that Warner makes great use of music and sound. Warner’s love of vinyl comes into play here, as records sing of nostalgia, songs that stay with us through changing times. Music highlights movement, “I’ll pour what melts / down the drain, and sleep / on the couch for another two weeks / before packing my record collection while you are at work.” In this way, the speaker describes revolving relationships, simultaneously meaningful and passing with women who “turnover like vinyl in my sleep.” In contrast, lack of sound and music speaks just as loud, as he “never understood what shape absence takes until the room is emptied of sound.” In mute and muffled swimmers’ ears, isolation glares, “I’ll swim to shore when I’m not so lonely.” Often, Warner uses what is lacking to enhance the movement of time and the experience of getting older. In “take the stairs” his lack of punctuation rushes the words through without any sense of stopping for the disoriented. Time simply slips away, and as “Time slows to a crippling stillness only known to those at the DMV” the speaker asks, “When did you get so old” but finds no answer. 

At this age, the speaker is forced to deal with his past, with illness and hospitalization, with the death of loved ones, and alcoholism. Between sections, an untitled poem speaks of “cancer in july / the fireworks in / her chest,” which is revisited later when he remembers relationships past. This brief poem is followed by one of two poems in a series, titled, “Best Worst Year: Episode 68 (Or, Waiting Room),” in which “the radio low—no music” the speaker remembers his life and lost friends from a hospital bed, and upon awaiting the discharge papers, “began writing all the names down. Each and every one of them who aren’t here due to circumstances beyond their control.” He laments not openly sharing how he loved them, and how he cannot share with them how he misses them now. He says, as the book comes to a close, “the fluid / around my left ventricle was where whiskey / went to keep me company,” that “Sundays don’t seem / as holy anymore as they did when I was a drunk,” and finally he admits, “I think I held on to the wrong things.” 

Two series permeate the latter sections of the book. “Therapists Nightmare” and “Best Worst Year” each contain two or more poems which the author uses to bring his demons to light. “Therapists Nightmare” #’s 1-3 show up in sequence—speaking lyrically of a silence that haunts the poet. The distress caused by this loss of voice and the implications behind it echoes in the minds of those willing to dwell on the experience of living in present times as well as through the corporeal imagery used to create the metaphors. Prose poems in the “Best Worst Year” series sound of loss. This pain is profound and deep. Feelings radiating from even these most personal of losses reach the universal, felt and understood by any who are willing to sit with the author in these moments. Impermanence weaves its way through this series in a way that sits heavy on the chest of the reader. “Best Worst Year: Episode 66 (Or, Nighttime),” the final poem of the book, speaks of a sensual and perhaps once great love. “Her skin pours warm water over the bare parts of you where contact means touch means depth means connection.” And yet, even in such depth and connection, “She said you touched her face like you were trying to remember it....You are anything but trying to remember. You are a stylus.” 

There is a pang of truth to each poem, a feeling to connect the nostalgia of the poem to the nostalgia of the reader. As a half-Japanese child, growing up neither white nor Asian, I felt the unease of his childhood, never able to settle into an identity. As an adult, it is impossible to escape the truth of an ever-passing life. Experiences, friends and lovers, come and gone, we experience with him as he “glide[s]... / over edges sharp and inconsistent / enough to pass as false memory.” There is an edge to his language that highlights the harsh pain of inevitable loss, “the outline of what once was and now is only known in the profile of its absence.” However, Warner possesses a lyrical quality that makes the inevitable and the passage of time somehow both tolerable and beautiful, humming, “It’s October in an empty room / and I didn’t even speak the language.”




Marilynn Eguchi is a creative writing student in Chicago. She is the winner of Truman College’s English Department Literature Award. Her essays and poetry have been published in Cleaver Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, and City Brink. She is a lifelong cellist, dancer and lover of comedy.