The principal aim of The City, Our City, the latest poetry collection by Wayne Miller, is to construct a difficult, philosophical poetics that most audiences will have trouble wrestling into meaning. I have no problem with being pleasantly mystified or even confused (Lynn Emanuel’s latest work baffles me even as I gasp with wonder), but this book straddles a fine line between unsettling readers and completely turning them off. Since Miller’s previous volumes, especially The Book of Props, have won praise from many circles (including The New Yorker), perhaps he need not worry about losing readers; his audience may well be confined to those in the academy. And after all, The City, Our City does still showcase the poet’s remarkable skill, though it should be noted that his most successful poems establish a scene and context in which his talent begins to shine. In “Winter Pastoral,” a quiet love poem, he writes:
The sound of the wind—but the wind
has no sound, we hear
only the vibrations
of whatever it touches. How silent
this room would be
without the creaking trees . . .
Language like this appeals to the ears and has the power to change how we think of something as simple as the wind. Another piece, “Those Boys,” memorably gives us (as the title helpfully indicates) a group of boys, fresh from a soccer game, standing over an open grave filled with rain. The penultimate poem in the collection, “Our Last Visit,” is dedicated to the poet’s father and serves as a gorgeous, affecting elegy, which stays with the reader because, from the start, we know the situation: the speaker and his father are walking together in a large city. Miller does not even need to specify the place here; simply by bringing these two men together and precisely detailing what they see, what they share (“a man was sailing / tinfoil boats on a silent fountain”), he creates a vast literal and emotional landscape, giving us all we need to enter that tender moment with him
Much of The City, Our City, however, is uneven and scattered as it seeks to examine war and construct a kind of symbolic realm. Like many young poets writing today, Miller’s work is lyrical and strange, but in the pursuit of universality, he fails over and over to locate readers in a specific time and place. One could say that both war and the current culture in America create dislocation, and that Miller and his ilk are simply reflecting that fact in their work. But writers cannot have it both ways: to disrupt or disquiet a reader, one must first establish a solid place from which to stray. With the exception of a few pieces, Miller seldom does so. And the numbered (and untitled) pieces of a long poem broken up (somewhat illogically) throughout the book do not help either as they hint at a semi-mythologized, never-named city that eventually seems to come under siege:
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.
These poems often sound like intellectual exercises for the poet and provide few of the necessary inroads for a reader, who begins asking questions rather early on: Where is “the City”? Why are we never told whether or not it actually exists? Is it merely a pastiche of different places and different time periods? Consider the first line of the book’s opening poem, “A Prayer (O City—)”: “O arrow landed deep in Harold’s eye . . . ” We know an arrow is being addressed here, but without any help from the title or the context an epigraph might provide, we have no idea to whom this arrow belongs or even who “Harold” might be. Already, Miller has us flipping to the Notes section in the back, hoping he might clarify; he does (Harold and his forces were defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066), but then he also explains yet another reference later on in the poem to Whiteman Air Force Base, and then another reference to the fact that “a particular Wal-Mart folding lounge chair . . . fits perfectly in the back of the bomber’s cockpit.”
I am not trying to be nitpicky here; this all occurs before we even move beyond the first line of the first poem. Does Miller honestly think even the most patient poetry reader (and poetry readers are nothing if not patient) will read a whole paragraph of explication simply to understand his poem? Most of his work makes allusions for which almost all readers will need explanation, and it’s worth pointing out that often Miller does not provide enough guidance even in the aforementioned Notes section for us to make complete sense of a piece. Though the language of the poems is intoxicating, for the most part we’re left on our own, scratching our heads.
One hopes that, in future volumes, Miller will find ways of including more readers by crafting poems that are both accessible and complex, both heart-wrenching and intellectually astute at the same time. A poet need not be obscure or detached to make work that challenges readers. He can choose to invite us into a piece, to share the wonder of experiencing our world more deeply.