Post- by Wayne Miller
Milkweed Editions, 2016; 91 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
Some Experiences of Post- :
We have come to cherish, crave even, debt, life that necessitates it, financially, emotionally, historically.
We inherit and pass on various forms of debt.
“Swallows” blends the swooping of birds in a field with the movement of an unborn child, marvels at both, closing with this reminder:
this is how they feed—)
We admire the beauty of destruction (like smoggy LA sunsets or the heroism of war).
This is not optimism, but a dangerous delusion.
Life proceeds on many massive mechanisms, one of which is the shifting and sliding of generations. The oldest generation gradually disappears while we raise the youngest, all the while we are sliding glacially from one generational position to the next, to the next, unto death.
“Inside the Book” frames the transition of a young child from “outside the book” into it:
Then, before we know it,
here she is with us
inside the book.
We want to follow in our parents’ footsteps. We rarely, when young, understand what this means, but we want it. And, we usually do duplicate the past, perpetuate the status quo, or plunge deeper into it.
“The People’s History”—formally and conceptually zapping. We differentiate “The People,” but this poem blurs those differentiations, urging us to consider how and why we make those differentiations, what we then do with them.
Section three of “House Near the Airport”: When offered a dream, a meaningful way to see/live, we often come up with reasons to not believe, to avoid change, to remain addicted. Sometimes we call this “logic,” sometimes “tradition,” sometimes “normal.”
In “Consumers in Rowboat” there are “the consumers” and “we,” and there is a divide between the way the consumers think, how they are aware or conscious, and how the speaker’s “we” think, are aware or conscious.
Rowers pump their oars in an effort to move backward, though they think they’re moving forward.
The metaphors, images, and scenes of Post- repeatedly reveal how we are duped by illusions, how we often dupe ourselves.
These poems are mind-/soul-/self-reflections. And we can/should borrow them.
“The Mind Sliding”
And that face
in the glass—face
with the fields sliding
through it—face that is
how the mind has come
to think about itself.
The self had to be asserted against that which seemed
merely given: the body’s untranscendable location—
to step outside it, outside what was visible
in the mirror in the room.
We construct a narrative of our own existence, our own identity. We invent ourselves, and the accuracy of that invention is difficult to verify, if it is at all verifiable. Perception, our own and others’, is the locus.
Miller’s speakers do occasionally find comfort in spite of the frequently dismal realizations. Or maybe it’s the reader who finds occasional respite.
“Prayers (w/Answers)” presents a genuinely consoling conversation between the speaker and his deceased father.
“Image: Postmodernity” lurches me into asking: Is all our work, our life undone, ineffectual?
And then “On Language” provides an ethereal reprieve, the joy of love amid/in spite of the undoing, absurdity, onslaught of illusion.
Miller’s poems are subdued, restrained. For the engaged reader they move ever so slightly, like plates at a fault line, but that slight movement leads to thundering effects—awesome and demolishing.
The latter half of Post- shifts, with longer sequence poems and a gaze aimed toward greater distances.
The moments and situations Miller selects for his poems are already poignant. Then his shaping magnifies these moments. “A Breath in the Record” asks us to reevaluate our expectations and assumptions. Is Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 tainted by a flautist’s breath, or made more beautiful by it? We are conditioned to perceive in our many certain ways.
I think Post- encourages us to soften our certainty. Time and again it reflects on loss and society and history in search of less automatic nuance. Miller’s speakers are looking for a more sustainable way to perceive and live.
Post- echoes an attitude notably described by Paolo Freire:
“to begin always anew, to make, to reconstruct, and to not spoil, to refuse to bureaucratize the mind, to understand and to live life as a process—live to become.”
“Landings,” with its 23 sections, embodies this continual reorientation.
There is always a window, almost always.
Each poem, as does the collection, ever so slightly floats a suggestion in our direction, putts us into our future, recommending we pay attention to our perceptions. If we are more attentive to how we see, what we presume, then our actions will be more informed, we might be able to do better.
“Allegory of the Boat” portrays a speaker haunted by a mistaken perception: if we hadn’t dreamt of the approaching ship in the night as loaded with jolly, rummed sailors, maybe we could have saved their sinking lives.