I’ve been thinking a lot about masculinity lately, more specifically the particularly violent attitudes that have been swirled into recent discussions about mental illness, gun laws, sexual violence, and football. In this miasma, masculinity is presented as problem, as a relation of actions based on constructed ideals. But of course, a person is not a problem, or not only a problem, and especially not to his mother.
Y is Leslie Adrienne Miller’s sixth poetry collection. Miller, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes a series of poems that might seek to solve a problem but instead problematize an over-simplification. The collection’s 53 poems explore the object boy-child from angles maternal, genetic, vocal, and neighborly, careful to leave nothing out, not even the gaps: “yes, we say yes to everything.” Interspersed among the poems are 16 adverseria, dialogue-objects that “set . . . discipline-specific voices against each other, as well as against the poems themselves.”
The boy running through the poems is at his delightful best in the moment just before action, when he embodies these contradictions:
. . . inclined to experiment
with the vagaries of narrative
sequence, entirely engaged
in the problem of whether to drop
the cork in front of the woman
or on her . . .
A mix of delicacy and abandon, the boy’s inclination to revise the story mid-prank is a concrete representation of the book’s thematic concern with hearing and mishearing, photography and representation, and the body’s necessarily contradictory pulls. In “Notes on a Suprasternal Notch,” Miller examines the
. . . signature of the first ossification
the body knew, as well as the last
to collect its cargo of minerals
into a matrix of bone.
The boy is at once hardening and in a constant state of flux.
Similarly, Miller loads her usually even rhythms with alliteration, assonance, and near rhyme; then, just when you’re comfortably counting on your fingers, she craftily slips the rhythm like a child running from a kiss:
Whole word in French and Spanish,
Vertical axis of Cartesian three
Loaning its fragile branch to a boy
in theory. On y va. Let’s go There.
What happens to unrepaired sequences
in subsequent generations?
A book that ends with three pages of references on subjects ranging from choral music and feral children to Roget’s Thesaurus, Y is erudite without distancing the reader any further than Miller’s characters are from each other. For them, “there’s no accounting for the loneliness / of a journey we expected to share.” It is these clashing languages of these subjects and the silent spaces between them that allow the reader access into the personal.