Post- by Wayne Miller

PostPost—, is his fourth collection of poetry, and it’s a fascinating and wonderful book. At once oblique and aphoristic it nonetheless addresses on some level our current and contemporary moment with serious insight.

The poems have the function of all elegies: to lament, to praise, to console. What is most admirable about them is how they use a minimalist’s eye, bending tone and making the most of economy of language. Take, for example, the curious title Post—. It does a lot of work in placing the poems, especially in their domestic and even political contexts: to square, to attach or affix, to make known or announce, to station or place, and maybe most accurately, to come after or succeed.

Some of the poems are titled “Post-Elegy,” and invoke a plane crash, a burned house, or a box of someone’s ashes. Memorializing, yet somehow prescient, the poems are for specific people and moments, yet will likely ring true for many sensitive readers.

Other poems imagine domestic scenes: married couples, pregnant wives, children, etc. Like perhaps Creeley, Justice, or Dickinson, Miller uses subtle turns and changes, yet few words, to do heavy lifting, as in the first part of “Swallows”:

          We place our blanket—
          the child inside you
          and you and I

          radiating from her.
          We open our books;
          the arbor curls over.

          Then: swallows
          skimming the surface
          of the field

          as if on lines, glinting
          like hydrofoils
          cutting a bay.

          Today we saw
          the child move sharply
          in the dark of you—

          though still
          just sand in a screen,
          her 2-D cockpit.

Elsewhere, the language similarly pivots from observations about the physical to more dreamlike fissures that turn on understated phrases, as in “Marriage”:

          I began to surface:
          a sense of rising, the earth I
          could feel lifting with me
          toward a blurred layer
          in the sky

          through which the ground,
          the street, the windows
          passes, and—see?
          I arrived at the warm
          engine of you
          asleep beside me.

Sometimes poetry works not because of its content or subject matter, but, like a house, because of how its built; in other words, technique makes a poem beautiful. In this aspect, Miller attempts something unusual, but does so successfully. He often finds general or abstract nouns and kneads them and needles them until they’re fresh again: they tend to take on new weight and feel renewed. Not in an artificial way, but in a way that can be challenging. For example, he takes the perhaps impenetrable ideas such as: debt, the People, the river, or consumers and makes them mysterious or even mythical:

          The grove of birches and, farther,
          the beach of driftwood and broken shells

          were framed by the enormous window—
          that lenslike architectural focus of his debt.

          He drove into town on the coiled springs
          of his debt; when he bought fish at the market

          he proffered his MasterCard. The dark woods
          stretching inland were pocked by lightfilled cubes

          of debt. The very words he used to describe
          his surroundings were glittering facets

          of debt.

It becomes pleasurable to experience the word through a new perspective. If only we could, in a world increasingly atavistic and miserable for so many, do the work of such a poem.

Considering that debts are obligations, in a book of many elegies, we are forced to confront what we owe not just our spouses and partners and children, but the dead, the people who are in some ways always expecting our bill to come due, so to speak.

Miller’s poems in Post— tend to be political not in the sense of advocating a position or message, but in the way that they insist on pausing amidst the chaos and paying attention. Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” In some sense, the poems’ strength is oddly their vulnerability towards such an experience. Miller must have mastered the art of revision, which literally means to “re-see,” but is really cutting out everything extraneous. There are no words left you could move or omit and still maintain the integrity of what’s on these pages.

One of the poems most distinct from the rest in Post— is called “A Breath in the Record,” which, we learn from a note, is a reference to an 1806 overture by Beethoven, recorded for the first time in 1912, and recalled in the 2009 poem. The speaker imagines a series of world events in 1912 (the Titanic, Sun Yat-sen) and in 1806 (the Cherokee Treaty, Lewis and Clark) and “while down in the record’s / spiraling thread // sixty-two musicians / are cramped // inside a blank / studio.”

The poem begins with the perhaps obvious moment, the concurrent things happening at the time the recording was made, but then moves back and forward to the contemporary. The speaker isn’t stuck exactly, but in a kind of trance: “the Overture surrounds, / too, like a body // becoming / the voice of a flute, // a filament of what / we’ve come // to think of / as Beethoven.”

Post— is a work of serious craft that shows how difficult it can be to write a poem. It uses the familiar, and taps into a kind of communal reservoir for elegy, but it’s also idiosyncratic and unfamiliar. As we fuss and get frustrated in what seems like darkness poems such as those in Post— make it clearer that we’re not expected to navigate the political or personal fog alone.
Sean Singer is the author of Discography (Yale University Press, 2002), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; and Honey & Smoke (Eyewear Publishing, 2015); and two chapbooks, Passport (Beard of Bees Press, 2007) and Keep Right on Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water (Beard of Bees Press, 2010). He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark.