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Mike Good

Post– is Wayne Miller’s fourth collection of poetry. Recurring themes include grief, aftermath, and absence. One series of poems sprinkled throughout titled “Post-Elegy” most explicitly navigates the passing of the poet’s father and his ongoing attempt to work through the aftermath of his death. While bereavement projects many of the collection’s salient themes, it would be incorrect to characterize Post- as personal narrative poetry. Rather, grief and absence serve as backdrops; other topics range from marriage and fatherhood, to more politically conscious and publically facing pieces. The effect is oxymoronic. Post- works to make absence tangibly felt, by giving loss a physical and ephemeral presence on the page.

Much like the first page, paragraph, or sentence of a great novel in retrospect, “The Debt,” the first poem, lays much of the groundwork for many of the book’s thematic concerns. It also offers its reader a taste of some of Miller’s poetic strengths. Musicality in “The Debt” is quiet and composed; its content appears intensely personal and yet remains minimal enough to invite the reader’s imagination. With this balance intact, the line between the private and public life blurs. Take the lines, “The grove of birches and, farther, / the beach of driftwood and broken shells // were framed by the enormous window— / that lenslike architectural focus of his debt.” The poem repeats the word “debt” eight times throughout its twenty lines, arranged in distichs. Sounds serve as anchors and tension remains taut throughout the piece as Miller pays careful attention to where stresses fall or withheld to guide his reader. For instance, in the first quoted line “farther” offers a falling ending, which contrasts against the more percussive, hard consonant, and stressed endings that generally close lines. A poem that could initially appear to portray difficult economic circumstances or offer a critique of capitalism also captures the negative void in life that persists after death. The poem ends hauntingly, “and, over drinks, he reminded me // with love and genuine pride: one day / all this debt would be mine.” The debt becomes both symbolic and literal: a negative income and an emotional indebtedness to an individual.

Miller’s use of adjectives is sparse and when they do occur, they count. Water is neither the bright blue Pacific, nor the stone-gray Atlantic—water is water. When snow falls, or when birds appear, there is less an attempt to capture a specific place in time, but rather, Miller offers collages of shapes and objects. The recurring imagery and moderate distance invite the reader to participate in the image making. Stanley Kunitz once said that each poet develops, “their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat.” The resonances of images are impossible to ignore throughout Post-. Water, snow, vessels, windows. ­Floods, emptying, melting. Darkness, fire, and transit. Miller has produced a collection of poems fitting for the winter that works in step with grief and loss as he guides the reader between thresholds.

Throughout its ninety-one pages, Miller does not depict a single color outside the white, gray, and black palette. What could be read as an illustration of the writer’s aesthetic is found in “Hoax Bomb,” a later poem in the collection. Miller writes, “Its dominion was absolute / and silent as a poem. Images / blew outward and everywhere.” These lines evoke not only Miller’s tendency to find muted music in language, but also to wield images that blow “outward and everywhere” to create a poem’s tone rather than looking inward. Like the hoax bomb described in the poem, Miller seems to trust the inherent power of poetry to convey and to mean.

Miller’s use of occasional end-rhyme is also particular and engaging. When Miller uses end-rhyme, he refuses to weave the rhymes together from stanza to stanza. In the collection’s lone sonnet, “Image: Psychotherapy,” stanzas are arranged in tercets until the final couplet. Slant rhymes and imperfect rhymes push the linkages between words to the brink, yet encourage the reader to strain to hear. The last five lines read, “on its massive hinge, lift the ship / back into its buoyancy. Even here— / on this shelf past the lip // of town—it’s impossible / to have any real sense of its scale.” While difficult to ascribe intent, the islanding of sound seems to gesture towards the state of mind of a distraught speaker grasping for the music around him.

Rhetorically driven poems, such as the “The People’s History,” dwell in a more conceptual space. In the world of this poem, “the People” appear to protest a city street. “Then the People descended upon the People, swinging hardwood batons / heavy with the weight of the People’s intent.” As “the People” continue to morph throughout the three-page poem, the poem points towards political or ideological contradictions and divisions, where each side unflinchingly believes it is acting in accordance with correct, popular, and democratic will. The poem neither judges the righteousness of the people swinging hardwood batons nor of the People being attacked, but rather, manages to humanize and distance itself from each actor. The poem shifts when the People are attacked by dogs, “That could not tell the People from the People.” It takes a nonhuman to recognize common and fragile humanity. Thereafter, the poem takes unexpected flight with an imagined debate between two unnamed speakers that is somewhat reminiscent of dialogue in a Donald Barthelme story.

Recent poets Miller brings to mind include Robert Hass and Louise Glück, and perhaps Czesław Miłosz, whose epigraph Miller selects to open the book. Miller has Hass’s self-awareness, Glück’s somber tone, and the tension of public and private life that characterizes some of Miłosz’s work. Post- stands out among many recent collections, successfully retaining thematic resonance while offering a wide range of form and content. Post- offers a unique elegy that weaves a quiet yet pronounced musical tapestry across a variety of subjects and cuts deeply into absence.

 As grief and absence dominate the pages, the embodiment of these emotions implies a sort of solace—snowmelt becomes water, and though the speaker mourns, mourning becomes a new perspective. Rather than grief becoming a wall that isolates the speaker—and by turn its reader—from the world, grief becomes a revelatory lens.

 

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Mike Good HeadshotMike Good holds an M.F.A. from Hollins University and is from Pittsburgh, PA, where he works as a grant writer. Recent poems have appeared in Forklift, OH, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bird’s Thumb, and Pittsburgh Poetry Review. His essays have appeared in The Hollins Critic and The Review Review. He serves as an editor for the Hour After Happy Hour. Find more at mikegoodwrites.wordpress.com.

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