Here is a Goldilocks principle of poetry. Some say that a book of poems should make an argument, that it should thoroughly explore a subject, that its power upon impact should be the result of accreted detail, like the hit of a well-packed snowball. Some, on the other hand, say that every turn of the page should yield a fresh surprise with a fresh subject, like a binder of wallpaper samples. For the most part, though, we accept the lukewarm slurry of variety and familiarity that is the modern volume of verse. New Zealand poet Alice Miller’s debut collection, The Limits (Auckland University Press / Shearsman Books, 2014), though it has many strengths, is such a book.
The Limits is divided into four apparently significant sections—‘Skin,’ ‘Steps,’ ‘Earth,’ and ‘Body’—in an attempt to impose a structure on the collection. Structure is a fine thing. It is more pleasant to spend the night under a roof than merely under a blanket. But not all material is suitable for building. It is fair to wonder, for example, why the poem called ‘Body’ is in the ‘Skin’ section, or why a poem called ‘The Ache,’ featuring the lines ‘You are locked / in the wing / of history / with blood still / stuck in your wrists,’ is in ‘Earth.’ Why is a poem about Brahms and the Schumanns (the quite good ‘Album of Breath’) in ‘Body,’ rather than, say, ‘Steps’? These musicians had bodies, certainly, but they also took steps, physically and in their tangled, evolving relationships. For that matter, music itself has steps (differences in pitch). The connection Miller makes is tenuous, arbitrary, or free-associative, and it is not more convincing than the one I have blithely made up.
I am not pointlessly waving my martinet’s baton. I know that we the readers are encouraged to see a true structure because sometimes (only sometimes) Miller is a shrewd and effective categoriser. Two poems about departure and disappearance, both titled ‘Waiata,’ the Māori word for song, appear in ‘Steps.’ Poems about forests and the Ring of Fire and the blood-soaked beaches of Troy are highlights of ‘Earth.’ And in fact there is an attempt to unite the book’s disparate material through a complex, possibly unreadable, set of metaphors and suggestions. They recur, with variations, throughout the volume. These examples should give you a sense of what Miller is up to:
We walk our planet and the print of our feet scrawls
onto our bodies.
of boots stroke the road.
How clean to see the imprint
of the bootsole on ice.
When the waves no longer wet your feet
When the rock is in your eyes
The cathedrals will not stop singing
(‘Album of Cold’)
Slow dawn wipes its feet across the sky
Here are skin, steps, earth, and body, all right, feet meeting surface, but what more can we say? Are these lines an invitation to consider our physicality versus our transience? Do they express a yearning to trace a path home by a writer who has lived abroad for years, in the U.S. and now Austria? (If Eleanor Catton is the best known New Zealander to come out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Alice Miller may now be the second best known.) Are they an eco-poetical gesture, a reminder to us of the effect we have on the earth, like Hopkins’s ‘generations’ who ‘have trod, have trod, have trod’ all over nature? It is not possible to say. It would be nice to have more information, rather than the same information repeated.
In an interview with Lee Posna in The Pantograph Punch, Miller discusses her title, The Limits:
Do limits suggest there’s something to reach beyond? Was Stevens right when he wrote death is the mother of beauty? A dear friend of mine is terrified of infinity. I’m frightened by the limits of time, which sounds like the opposite—but could it be the same thing?
This aphorism-cum-soundbite is much clearer than anything in the book. It suggests that the steps in Miller’s poems, whether the journey of one person or the entire March of Progress of humanity, from Pliopithecus to Homo sapiens, are simply a walk to death. This is a powerful explanation, but it is not a poem, still less in the poems.
But even if we are walking to extinction, this is not a joyless read to have with you on the road. The poem ‘Ocean’ is an accomplished little artifact:
We make a map to throw upon the world
to catch the unknown islands that grow thin
to stop the ocean surging up to meet
the feet of folk who used to know the tides
There’s never been a hierarchy of trees
and I know nothing but to clamber up
to watch the human heads I know below
and throw our map upon them as they go
while our screens refresh us every second
and soon they’ll show the correct path to take
our programmes will erase all cold all distance
to point to lands that reach beyond the myth
but soon the water’s pouring up the hills
because we cannot map the ocean still
It is all here: the oracular register, suited to the telling of a flood myth; the rolling rhythm of a regular pentameter; the deep indentations that suggest crests and troughs, incoming and receding waves, flood and ebb tides; the end rhyme only in the middle, as a premonition, and at the end of the poem, when the rising water of the sea overwhelms the landscape of the poem and probably the speaker, too. ‘Ocean’ successfully convinces us that it is in the form it is in because it could be in no other. Then, in another vein, there is a poem like ‘Slow,’ which is on the page facing ‘Ocean’:
Inside, our throat makes
a cut noise, like when cloth is
caught, wrapped round
When, at the party, we run short
of platitudes, we begin to bark
Then the dogs surge in
from fucking miles around
‘Then the dogs surge in / from fucking miles around’! This is a remarkable outburst in an otherwise quiet, contemplative book. I imagine a workshop full of people laughing at this and insisting that, whatever else may be changed, those lines stay, Alice, those lines stay. Note the use of the word ‘surge’ in both poems, and how utterly different is the effect each time. ‘Slow’ is ragged, feral. ‘Ocean’ is menacing. Those are two good pages.
Miller’s poems on Antarctica are also worthy of attention. New Zealanders take Antarctica seriously, partly because so many expeditions to the frozen continent leave from there. For example, in Christchurch, where I now live, there is the International Antarctic Centre, an Antarctic wing in the city museum, and there was, until the 2011 earthquake toppled it, a statue of the doomed polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. The nation’s poets have visited Antarctica and written on it, including Bernadette Hall (in The Ponies) and Bill Manhire (in Antarctic Field Notes and elsewhere). Miller’s observations on this land of blue-white crevasses and wastes of burning snow were made when she was a visiting writer at Scott Base during the 2011–12 southern summer. Not all the poems in the ‘Earth’ section deal with Antarctica directly, but many are chilled by the subject’s proximity. For us, as it is for the speaker of ‘Grow,’ it is as if ‘the land switched / to ice beneath our feet.’ It is fitting that Antarctica is a setting for some of Miller’s poems. It is the physical embodiment of the romance of the pessimistic vision: ‘This land’s the final garden: / inside, we are promised, / nothing will grow’ (‘Antarctica II’). Or, put another way: ‘Ours is a life worth losing’ (‘Orbit’).