In Nearby Bushes, Kei Miller’s fifth book of poems, is a stunning collection, symphonic in scope and structure. Miller asks the reader to consider place and name, how and what is named, and who does the naming. He directs the reader to consider these questions while showing us the devastation of homophobia, misogyny, colonialism, racism, and murder in prose and found poems and lush lyrics.
Miller, who was born and raised in Jamaica, gives us two epigraphs that explain the book’s title. In the first, adopting a phrase from Jamaican blogger Paul Tomlinson, Miller sounds the tonic key of the collection:
Dem always escaping in nearby bushes.
The epigraphs are followed by what may be taken as a dedication: “Here Where Once Lay the Bodies.” In the poem that precedes the collection’s first section, Miller lays out out a list of names, eight stanzas followed by a singlet:
Nancy Hardy (72 years old, body found November 28, 2018)
Barbara Findley (38 years old, body found December 5, 2018)
Demar Stennett (20 years old, body found January 5, 2019)
& these are only some
In these first two pages, the book takes us from the ridiculous to the sublime, thereby introducing the tension between beauty and horror Miller plays with throughout the collection.
The three sections, or movements, of In Nearby Bushes create an unbuilding, a stripping down to the essential details that led to the finding of these bodies. Miller threads leitmotifs of phrases and words (here where, here, nearby bushes, where is) throughout the book; specific to each movement, they vary in style and form. The book opens with lyrics that fly across the page in regular stanzas, often tercets. The middle movement is formed with blocks of prose poems which Miller calls micro-essays. The closing section, the long, multi-movement title poem, is built on a scaffold of found poems.
In the first section, Here, Miller points to place, to here, opening with “Translation of a Jamaican Curse,” “guh dead ah bush!” It ends with:
May you feel
The earth’s rhythm and weather and wear; may you think
‘of all place I have ended here.’
The next poem, “The Understory,” serves as yet another preface:
Here is the unplotted plot, the intriguing
twist of vines, the messy dialogue—just listen
how the leave uh & ah & er nonstop.
The poem closes with the line,“Well here are the stories underneath.”Miller takes his time. He builds a sturdy framework for the poems to build on. This work in the hands of a less skillful poet might result in sledgehammering, but Miller constructs a foundation that gives the reader not only a place to stand, but also a field guide to the poetry found in these bushes.
“Here Where Blooms the Night” is a sensory celebration of Jamaican flora, folktale and language. The three-lined stanzas alternate their pattern of indentation, lending a riverine movement that wends across its three pages. One stanza deviates from the lineation, a gesture to underscore the action of the lines. This is a gorgeous poem: music, form, and diction create a fully sensuous, if not sensual, experience.
The first section closes with “A Psalm for Gay Boys,” a bookend to the list of names from the dedication. The poem fits the page like a psalm. It is a collection of phrases punctuated by oversized periods. In the second to last line, “here” becomes “hear” for the first time in this section. The joyful sensuousness is gone. This is a cold shower of a poem, waking the reader to the sinister work in the bushes. It works because Miller shifts from pointing to place to asking us to listen to what is said and happening there.
The second section, Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places, is subtitled “10 micro-essays.” These are mostly brief prose poems, meditations on place and language and their subversion by colonialism and time. The orchestration changes in this section, with “I” or “We” taking a prominent place. These meditations present an interiority, the ownership of questions posed earlier. The poems are a more personal exploration of the setting of place and culture presented in the first section. The tone is often tender, no more so than in “These Things I Know as Much as You,” drawing attention to personal experience:
the here that could be anywhere,
and every place. It is possible, in the pre-day world—to ignore the
specifics, the names of birds or places, the specific shape of rooves—
to simply be in the world, wrapped by an unbothered sky.
The center of the book closes with “To Consider the Nearby Bushes,” a fluid segue to the title poem:
To consider the nearby bushes—a stretch of canefield perhaps, or
the crotons behind the house—is to consider the nameless places,
or perhaps the placeless places. It is to consider the nonspecific
‘here’—a here that could be everywhere, or maybe nowhere.
The third and title section begins with untitled, found, and erasured poems that are not listed in the table of contents. The title poem follows, a long, multipart prose poem. Miller begins with a terse newspaper clipping about the discovery of the remains of a missing woman. In the next two pages, Miller manipulates the text of this clipping by having certain words recede by using grey print, or by increasing their prominence by bolding. The third and fourth versions of the text have bolded letters that spell out phrases the appear throughout the book: here where is the nearby bushes and here where blossoms the night.
The first poem is composed of sections in which the speaker addresses the murdered woman to imagine and ask what she felt and thought as she set out on her final journey, and then as she was assaulted. The speaker wonders what happened the morning after her death, the worms rising through her corpse: “You, a curious county of decay.” These poems made me shiver. These are poems of compassion in which the murdered are brought back to life as the poet brings us into her world, her morning. Miller will not allow us to forget the dead, the victims left in the nearby bushes. He makes us look there.
I was captivated by this book. Page after page, Miller gave me something to admire in terms of diction, form, imagery, and much to think about in his manipulation of terse news stories. Emboldening language to rise above the mundanity of text, Miller brought me to the lives that lie beneath. This is a project book in which the poems enjoy their freedom, as do their readers. Miller’s poetry becomes metaphysical in its earthly grounding.
Jamie O’Halloran’s poems and poetry reviews appear most recently, or are forthcoming, in Crannóg, One Hand Clapping, The Galway Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Spillway and Lit Pub. She lives in Connemara in the West of Ireland.