Thunderbird by Jane Miller
Copper Canyon Press, 2013; 96 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
In his 1927 essay, “Photography,” German film theorist and critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote, that in comparison to photography, “Memory does not pay much attention to dates; it skips years or stretches temporal distance.” History, and the collective recording of it, whether in image or word, provides the static mortar and ballast between recollections. It is the human desire to catalog that tethers ethereal memory to the material realm.
Jane Miller’s tenth collection of poems, Thunderbird (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), is a marriage of those secular and eternal polarities Kracauer compared nearly ninety years ago. Anchored in the earthly concerns of death, desire and sex, while simultaneously delving into the un-measureable afterlife, the poems interlace a broader history with the lyric, stream-of-consciousness characteristic to cognition’s internal narrative. Poems with a suspended-in-aspic quality of timelessness, featuring a family at the beach in Florida, the speaker’s dying mother in Arizona, and the sweet taste of a new lover, are juxtaposed with poems of a distinct chronology, such as “Sticks of Flesh in Transit,” which describes Nazi crimes against the Jewish, Roma, and Sinti peoples before and during World War II.
There is an air of analysis—both of historic figures and of the contemporary I—within the poems. “I’ll never know what these faces are all about,” Anne Sexton wrote in “All My Pretty Ones.” Indeed, in Thunderbird it is as if the speaker is attempting to comprehend a shared past (“dreaming everybody’s memory”; “this would be our first/mistake together”) and her comparatively recent familial story, too fresh to be objectively interpreted. The experience of immediate family is complicated for the speaker; her efforts to achieve understanding feel obstructed. The clearest pictures assembled of her parents as people—and as ghosts—are often opaque and unreachable. The result is that more remote events such as the Holocaust now feel horrifically intimate, and closer years are rendered distant and less accessible.
Although the speaker protests a film comparison in “Boundaries” (“my memories vary but each is discrete/not like a movie but a book of poems”), the poems—generally unpunctuated (save for question marks) and placed on the page in tight proximity—seem to rush forward, one after the other, like images rolling from a projector. Working in diametrical opposition to this propulsion, many titles are words or phrases repeated from preceding lines. The poems surge forward as the mind casts back. In contrast to Kracauer’s time-freezing photographs, a film must move to be seen and understood. The lines—distractible, but never distracted—cannot help but zoom from the wide angle to the telephoto. An intimate lens captures the speaker projecting shadow puppets on the wall of her mother’s hospice room in an attempt to entertain the dying woman (“My Severed Head”), while the macro lens of the aforementioned “Sticks of Flesh in Transit” brings into focus the Nazi propagandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl as she casts extras from the ranks of prisoners (many of whom were sent to the death camps after filming was complete).
Following the ever-shifting aperture of the speaker’s mind, many first lines are complete sentences but soon morph into fractured paths of prepositional phrases and relative and subordinate clauses. Structurally, these poems stay on topic, but lead the reader to an unexpected vantage point of the initial subject—as if approaching eternity from another angle (or from the “back of beyond,” as Boris Pasternak wrote). For example, “That I,” a poem reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s “Berck-Plage,” its mourning detached yet inescapable:
Jane lolls at the beach
a shimmering hour goes by
impoverished bodies Walter and Flossie
swim leisurely as drops in the sea
they compare in significance
to the receptive spirit
they will enter later
when as monsters they return and with no one
my nightmare of losing them is over
Syntax and sense overlap, casting forward while reaching back, carrying one thought into the next. Desire is a large theme of the book, whether for a lover’s body (“My Pastoral”), or for the ability to remember and not be harmed by what the mind calls forth, as in “Reputation” (“my point being that shame/informs consciousness”). With fierce vulnerability, “That I” strives to extend the existence of the speaker’s parents in this world, while also mapping the inevitable alterations in her role as daughter. Never what they initially seem, the poems house multiple intentions, as two projectors—one of history, and one of memory—run their films concurrently on the same screen, Kracauer’s earthbound fact and unanchored perception finally merging into one. Here, a day at the beach becomes the parents’ bodies, then their dying and deaths, which then becomes a hurricane of grief, perhaps, before finally re-grounding within the speaker’s distressing realization that having lost, she no longer need fear losing. Never simply one of these worlds, the poem contains them all.
This multiplicity extends to the title, as the thunderbird assumes many forms. To some Native Americans, it is a mythical being in the shape of a bird. To cryptozoologists, it is another “hidden animal” such as the Loch Ness Monster. It is also a car, manufactured by Ford and within these pages, a red two-door driven by the speaker’s mother (“Snow”). The thunderbird can have no figure, existing amorphously in the poem “Consciousness” as “A massive shadow of hubris”. It is also a creature arriving to enact a quiet, indirect revenge:
Gypsies reappear after sleeping
as sprigs of pastel lilies
through the wrath of a thunderbird (“Rain Lilies are Gypsies Too”)
The poem’s compact form resembles that of a Venn diagram, in brief totality composed of overlapping circles, humanity’s themes of war, loss, renewal, myth, and retribution delicately woven into three careful lines. These are not poems of sweeping generalizations, meant to instruct the reader on how to judge. Instead, they invite witnessing and are a consideration of how past political and wartime atrocities live on in the descendents of their victims.
“For history is heroic/at best an ordinary impossible struggle,” Miller writes in “Belling the Leader of a Flock of Sheep.” The language of Thunderbird—at times stunned with mourning; at others, hot with want—is unwaveringly riveted to that struggle, integrating in line and form the fragmentation inherent in memory. Earlier in the same essay, Kracauer writes, “Memory encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance nor the entire temporal course of an event.” Like eternity, past and present have no measurement here. The motivating facts and questioning impulses behind the poems remind readers of their place in a larger story, allowing an opportunity to share memories of family, love and legacy by entering a daughter’s uneasy mind, an historic catalog of faces both recognized and unknowable.