thanks to the good folks as goodreads and the generous associates at graywolf press, i have this copy of the uncorrected proofs of leslie adrienne miller’s Y right here beside me. with the madness of a busy semester behind me, i can finally give it the attention it deserves. here goes.
the book caught my eye immediately for two reasons: the one letter title and the gorgeous cover. the cover is actually photograph of another artist’s work. australian artist ron mueck did a series of oversized, hyperrealistic sculptures of people (including that of the boy on the cover), and they are gorgeously detailed and uncanny. in a nice way.
but the book has much more to offer. after the code-switching, language-playing title poem about the y chromosome that makes half of the world’s population what they are by its presence, and the other half by its absence, there’s the lucifer effect — and even while i was reading it the first time, i could tell i was torn: the poem works beautifully, it’s very effective emotionally, it’s like a giant fist closing around my chest. not a good feeling. but fascinating. here’s a taste:
Learning her limits is a game he suspects
he shouldn’t play, but sometimes he’s quiet
on purpose: some funny place in him likes
to see her struggle to locate whatever he is
beyond squirm and din.
the boy like a predator teasing his prey, an elderly neighbour who is nearly blind. she knows he’s there but she can’t see him. and this is where, tacky as it sounds, this poem breaks my heart:
Crouched in a shrub, he waits
for the moment to unfurl its enormous flock
of risks, only to wheel back and settle again/
He waits until her smile begins to slide, until
the inevitable stumble, and there it is —
tingle of dark cause, sensation ajar,
rippling across his scalp.
that slipping smile. it gets me. i’ve seen it. i have a soft spot for old people — i grew up around old people. i got to know three of my great-grandmothers and several of their sisters. from very early on i learned the ‘right’ way to act around old people, how to respond to their occasional loss of context, how to learn their limits, not to play with them, but to respect them. what also gets me is how well ‘the lucifer effect’ is captured in this simple, short poem.
the collection is interspersed with ‘adversaria‘ — mental notes miller made while researching for her poems, tidbits of information, like petit fours of science. a particularly beautiful one is on page 15. it talks about roget’s DNA, and says that it contains genetic palindromes. i suspect miller loves the research part of her work as much as i do for my own writing. it’s these little sparkles in science texts that make the digging worthwhile.
|(slightly adapted from gray’s anatomy)|
notes on a suprasternal notch talks about the body and being in one’s own body, responding with the body through instinct and primal urge. playing with the vocabulary of anatomy, miller describes how even a view can turn the skeleton keys inside us:
[…] a view
of a man squatting to read
for a towel on a summer beach
his shoulders forward so the stunning V
of him ignites in you own nether notch
the suprasternal notch, by the way, is the jugular notch, the small hollow where your clavicles meet at the base of your neck. for random association, i remember it was of particular interest to the central character in the english patient when talking to his lover. in any case, now you know what that little hollow place is called.
the following adversaria section goes back to the image of primal responses in the body:
I believe that when I visit a zoo my muscular response changes as I movefrom the hippopotamus house to the cage of the weasels.
and then, in cambiata. miller considers another peculiar experience where the body has its way: the breaking of a boy’s voice. here, the boy is jean-baptiste maunier, a french singer and actor. his last great performance and his last release was in 2005, when he recorded one last duet before his voice broke, to “deliver ever after / only ordinary music, the round nub / of his Adam’s apple rocking in grief.”