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Guest Review: Muckle On Miller

John Muckle reviews
Spiritual Letters: Series 1-5
by David Miller

Fragments of memory, remembered fragments of writing – Christian and Jewish religious meditation; letters from friends; dreams; narratives – David Miller’s Spiritual Letters weaves these together into a series of excavated nuggets of unresolved story that walk a borderline between poetry, prose-poetry and various modes of narrative art, yielding a reading experience that is splintered, occasionally frustrating, but memorable and quite literally haunting. Miller hovers in a world of ghosts between the quasi-religion of art and actual religious belief, and addresses fundamental questions: What is the function of memory? Is it a gift of God that enables us to recall friends, lost loves in anticipation of an eventual reunion, in other words, a prefigurative promise of immortality? A means of cultural survival? In which of St Augustine’s two modes of regret is the past made most vitally (or painfully) present: nostalgia or remorse? And what about the future: is it anticipated with hope or fear?
These questions are framed (by Augustine) in the secure knowledge of an afterlife; Miller’s explorations of them in intricate discontinuities imply that possibility; but Miller seems unable to anticipate this in any security, neither in joy nor in fear and trembling. He follows St Augustine, in a way, but there’s little of the thanksgiving and resolution with which, in the Confessions, he exclaims: ‘for how long did I fail to see that?’ and offers his heartfelt thanks to God for cleansing the scales of illusion from his contaminated mind. David Miller’s autobiographical narrator – like most of us – remains unresolved, unsure, suspended in agonising distensio between past and future, and is bombarded by disturbing recollections:

I was woken from a few hours sleep in my narrow room by a knocking at the door. I’d thought it must be the neighbour’s child, and was astonished to find it was a friend from far away. We ate waffles with acacia honey and drank white wine. Shattered glass underfoot on the pavement. A shudder of arrival, boat bumping against pier. She’d written his name and a time on her hand. On another’s hand, he saw a small cross in ink.

(from Series Four, p 62)

He sits at café tables, drinks wine in Greece, looks at the sea, listens to Rembetika music, climbs into London cabs, emerges from underground stations, witnesses street incidents, and artworks, plays his clarinet: vanquished but somehow persisting to remember lost lives. Unlike Augustine he doesn’t repudiate the past, question his own beliefs, desires or actions: Miller is still in talks with the Manicheans, watching plucked fruit bleed, wandering across a battlefield, or gathering the limbs of Osiris. His questions, as I have said, remain unanswerable, or as yet unresolved. There is a wait-and-see quality to Spiritual Letters, or perhaps he has seen already and is only an earthbound wandering spirit, still hoping, still hanging on for some final revelation. The book opens with an allusion to Blaise Pascal’s famous ‘night of fire’ when God revealed himself to him, an account of which the French philosopher and mathematician sewed into his clothes lest he should forget the encounter. For Pascal there was nothing frailer than human intentions, so this was both an act of faith and an aide mémoire, and therefore a recognition of his own human fecklessness.
I fear that Spiritual Letters will remain a difficult book for many, but this is a great pity since it is full of passing beauties and is deeply serious. Its melancholy, even lugubriousness, isn’t merely indulgent but a condition of being for someone who has refused to let go of the precious details of lost experience. Anecdote is the most modest of all literary-cultural forms, and the most common; yet even a broken anecdote, like one of David Miller’s, always hovers on the edge of allegory in that it is offered as an exemplary instance of something: a typical story. As is the case in this lovingly-constructed palimpsest of recovered memories and quotations, most of which could have come from anywhere. A mysterious story. A mystery story whose discontinuities speak.

A swinging door and a bucket of blue paint: how many possibilities were there? – It was a void, she said; a very interesting void. The folded sheet of paper was thrown to the floor and stood.

(Series Four, p 63)

John Muckle's publications include The Cresta Run (stories), Cyclomotors (illustrated novella), Firewriting and Other Poems (Shearsman, 2005), London Brakes (novel - Shearsman, 2010) and My Pale Tulip (novel - forthcoming, 2012).

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