Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2011. 104 pages. $16.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Wayne Miller’s third book of poems, The City, Our City, is a meditation on metropolitanism occasioned, as Miller has said in interviews, by the American press’s incorrect thinking about red states and blue states. In Miller’s view, the U.S., especially regarding the 2004 presidential election, is more aptly characterized as a sea of red country punctuated by blue, metropolitan islands. These islands are connected by a shared ethos of progress, industry, and other values and attributes that are coeval and co-dynamic with all other international cities. By Miller’s reckoning, the city is the locus of artistic creation and industrial power and provides the canvas upon which global history is written. His collection ponders these themes through fierce lyrical investigations that move in and out of the personal, the historical, and the allegorical.
“The City, Our City,” a serial poem that appears in sections throughout the collection, is a loose, spontaneous meditation on the historical modulations of the international city. Miller sections off the poem and spreads the sections evenly throughout the collection, between which piecemeal poems reside within their own associative and spacious culs-de-sac and city blocks. The tenth section begins as suddenly as a historical catastrophe:
And then war. Even balloons
became weapons, as did bottles
and kites and those strange
new flying machines the academics
had mocked for their uselessness.
In the eleventh section, Miller transitions from the omniscient (and poetic) historian-allegorist to a first-person account. The abrupt shift in perspective highlights the contrast between external ideas about the city and subjective perspectives from the ground floor:
I spent my childhood watching
the men repaint the chapel ceiling—
I imagined they were painting
the ceiling of civilization, imagined
their work would fill in the blue
above the roofline. [ ] I remember
chipped fire escapes, nests of wire
atop the electrical poles, clotheslines
tangled in the courtyard
Through radical shifts in speaker and perspective, even as the serial poem provides a solid infrastructure for the collection, it also continually redirects itself—and not gratuitously, as might be the fashion with some contemporary lyrical projects. The collection seems to have metabolized lessons from the major Modernists, particularly Auden, while also employing hallmarks of more contemporary hybridization. Miller’s combination of allegory, stark imagism, surrealist panache, and sophisticated tonal movement create a poem that is as dynamic as the architectural space of his city.
Probably the most revealing poem in the collection is “The Assassination Lecture,” which primes a reader to think of Kennedy at the moment of a “bullet piercing his temple, head / thrown back as if in deep laughter.” But the poem ends up offering a lesson that both frustrates and dismisses direct historical depiction:
. . . And class,
if you’re to understand anything
of history, you have to see
it was the moment that killed him,
not the squeeze of the trigger,
not the network of phonecalls
that obtained the gun. Not those
in the government whose voices
threaded the lines, not the lover
whose complicity was suspect.
“The network of phonecalls / that obtained the gun” as well as “the lover / whose complicity was suspect” frustrate a direct reference to Kennedy, though the particularity of their definite articles suggests a real event. Miller gives us the hypothetical particulars of a rhetorical moment. These particulars serve as MacGuffins to the charge that “the moment . . . killed him.” Miller abstracts the situation from concrete historical reference as a way of allegorizing history as a series of repeated moments, such as The Assassination.
Of equal importance to Miller’s idea of the moment, as from “The Assassination Lecture,” is its relationship to his idea of the city itself. In his poem, “Dear Auden,” Miller writes: “When gunmen exchanged fire // across my yard, the City / filled the bullets, which so briefly // breathed in their motion.” Could the bullets of this gunfire, which the City fills, be the same bullets by which the Moment kills in “The Assassination Lecture”? Throughout the book, space and time seem inextricably linked to suggest such interchange. In Miller’s poems, the city and the moment, space and time, are the yin and yang of an event. The City and The Moment are twinned concepts; not only this, they conspire as the principal agents of events, which construct an atonal periodization of human experience. What does this mean? It means that for Miller, to enter the City is to enter a surreal space in which time is looped, human agency revoked, and physical distance erased.
As diverse populations dwell within a city, so have many poets, across large spans of time, dwelled within its ideas. It’s impossible to read Miller’s collection without encountering some of these other poets along the way, collapsing their temporal distance. Auden comes up in particular, and the first of the book’s epigraphs, from Auden’s “Memorial for the City,” works to frame Miller’s project. However, Miller moves a step beyond Auden’s lament of the city’s ruin by war and politics to counterbalance it with suggesting and celebrating the city’s artistic possibilities:
The gunbarrel chimneys
began to rise, and factory barracks
suited travelers just as well
as their worn-out saddles. Artists
were discovering abstraction—
which the City held in its promise
of geometry and vice as a camera
holds a world in its lens. The bars
were full of revolution
The architecture forming Miller’s city is informed by the technologies of weaponry (“gunbarrel chimneys”), and thus the force and war which have leveled Auden’s beloved European city. But as a social space the city also engenders art, idea, and “revolution,” which Miller celebrates. These two opposing creative and destructive forces provide the central working conflict for a collection that forces its reader to experience beauty at a tragic cost. Part of this cost is the city’s repeated violence. But the other part is the city’s inherent isolation. The city is an island, removed from surrounding human communities. And within the city, the individual finds himself isolated amidst the impersonal masses. His encounters are sometimes intimate, sometimes alien. It’s the simultaneity of intimacy and alienation in reading Miller’s book that recommends it most. It’s an experience you’ll want to think about in our divided, post-election, political landscape.