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Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Guest Review: Bailey on Miller

Andrew Bailey reviews
The Day in Moss
by Eric Miller

Eric Miller is, quite clearly, a nature poet; The Day in Moss is packed with robins, redwings, rivers and river willows, alongside less immediately romantic elements such as snails, lichen and pill-bugs. It's probably no surprise, then, to find that one of his specialisms in his lecturer day-job is John Clare; the opening poem of the book, 'River Willow', even shares an image with that poet.

This is Clare's willow, from 'To Anna, Three Years Old':

The old pond with its water weed
And danger-daring willow tree,
Who leans an ancient invalid
Oer spots where deepest waters be.

Whereas Clare's poem promptly finds its personification in the "ancient invalid", Miller's willow sparks a question - "This crack willow, just who is she? Ophelia, I think [...] Likewise, this willow's Narcissus lucky [...] In fact, Ophelia and Narcissus couple here, living above and below the image, reaching down and reaching up in one gesture." In numbered prose sections Miller creates an ornate tangle of reflections on the willow and its reflection and the meaning of the image for a human observer, a "meditation in the midst of force" as the fourth section says.

That 'ornate' is important. There's a significant image in 'The Slacking of Necessity' where "Berries gather, a weight-gain of the breeze / globed with gratuitousness, gorged / to realization." The flux between elements is presented with what may initially appear to be the poet's weakness for alliteration (elsewhere you can find the "plump loop of puffed-up / pearls piped out of the brine's protean / blow-holes") that starts to make that use of "gratuitousness" look like it offers a weapon against Miller's sense of the sonic parts of rhetoric. When we're supposed to like the sophisticated sensation of near-unnoticeable sound effects, the great clatter of those connected spondees is highly noticeable, and I can imagine it coming across as gauche - as it clearly does to this reviewer.

However Quill and Quire recognises "a poet of baroque extravagance, soaring vision and sonorous rhetoric" in Miller, and I'm inclined that way. Take this, the opening of 'November rain and song':

Vituperative November. Yet the robins are voice
over voice, voice into voice coalescing and diverging
in a light cut with rain, rain cut with light, a hard sun's light,
light as solid as a thrown stone
or like the fractured columns of the rain.

Yes, yes, yes, it gives the opportunity to start calling purple or even to laugh - my wife's comment was that "I bet I can find the word 'effulgent' in here" - but over the space of a book, rather than a five-line snippet, it is very possible to acclimatise to the heightened diction and to find real pleasure in the sprung euphony of it.

That Quill and Quire quote also acknowledges that the extravagance can lead to "the occasional spectacular collapse", though, and the difficulty with drawing such attention to the noise a poem makes is that a single discordant honk can lead to such a collapse. 'The bridge', for example, aims at a genuinely sublime moment where lovers are surrounded by gulfs in each direction as the ends of the bridge they are crossing are obscured by mist; it succeeds, for me, save for two words - "We paused over the middle, / obliteration vivacious at either end" - and I can't get those out of my head while reading the rest of it (italics mine). That said, the commitment that risks such a honk is worth applause, and leaves me prepared to forgive an occasional squeaky reed.

As if to solve the problem of why a poetic with such an interest in nature should require such artifice to present it, the figure of Galatea appears throughout the book. Venus, in the retelling of the Pygmalion moment that closes The Day in Moss, is almost absent; it is through the sculptor's loving work that the change becomes possible, but "Vitality preceded Pygmalion... he altered / nothing." There is a sense of a belief that the highly-worked object changes, allows something alive to become manifest in it. She features in 'Crossing Halifax harbour' as a dissolved solid, as liquid, as airy spume "eternally / tipsy in her lucid drink" as the poem argues that the human creations are equally impermanent.

I note in passing that, aside from Galatea, the women explicitly introduced in this book are a dying mother and a post-coital nymph; the latter, in 'The Conception of Achilles' is silenced and sexualised to a point I felt uncomfortable with. There are so few human characters, however, in the book that it's hard to triangulate a response appropriately, particularly as it is the first and title poem of a section that deals with themes of violence, fate and absolution.

Mostly, humans other than the narrator of a poem appear as in 'Mud Creek', where "we enter" the ravine; there is no sense given of the companion, but then there is little of the narrator either, simply joy becoming awe at the squelchy, weed-thick creek where rats, grackles and pill-bugs may be found (and, in the last case, poked to watch them curl). This poem, conveniently available online , is one of the defining successes within The Day in Moss, and will probably do more to help readers decide if Miller's lilygilt pleasures are for them than a review can.

Andrew Bailey is a poet.
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