water and salt / love and grief: a look at unrest
Chloe Yelena Miller. Unrest. Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2013. 28pp. $14.00 paper.
A disturbance. A dissatisfaction. An agitation. What is unrest? A state of not being at rest? Or a request?
As I read these poems, I am more and more inclined to hear Miller’s voice as instructive. She shows me, her reader, how to be alive in the world by being in motion—mentally and physically, domestically and universally. Restlessness is not a comfortable state. But that’s rather the point.
The first poem in the collection, “Breach: Rupture,” begins “Liquid shifts to fill / its container— / now bedrooms, now dresser drawers.” The liquid here is water—the lethal water that seeped into New Orleans in 2005, ending many lives. Miller makes sure we know the context of this poem by stamping time and place under the title, but this is a rare nod toward explication on her part, and I think unnecessary. The poem contains all that it needs: the flood, the aftermath, the anger of an old woman whose hands “harden around the bleached / paper that named her,” and then the poet, who asks, “Should I speak for you?” and answers, “I offer my throat.” And yes, this poem is also an ars poetica, and the poet’s art shifts, in increments, insidiously, finding the shortest route, sweeping the reader along toward understanding. Words, like water, will fill their container.
Miller’s restless ebb and flow contains a life. In this life, food is torn apart and devoured and eating reveals a lack. In this life, the sea is quiet and the ocean crashes. In this life, the dead haunt the living, who use mirrors to check for breath. Love, in this life, is a mother-to-be wondering “When your heels are slapped, will you scream?” (“Will you”); is a daughter massaging her father’s eyelids “with careful thumbs, / as if petting a goldfish” (“Dying at Home, 1937”); is a thumbprint that fits (“Chestnut”), even though, as we know, every thumbprint is unique.
Water and salt. Love and grief. Words and the distance between. Miller’s work requires the reader to make shift, to be mindful, and to seek connections. The best lines, the best stanzas, are spare and open to interpretation. In the best of these poems, craft both carries and is carried by, the ebb and flow of images and ideas. The lines “I watch you through the holes in the sky— / my palm on your thigh, still,” from “Cubist Spring,” for example,may be unpicked by anyone who feels the need to investigate how rhyme, syntax, and space work together to seamlessly create meaning. But how much better it is to be in the poem and to know that “ . . . It is spring and love refuses / to stay between the lines of its shape.”
One or two poems in this collection work less well, and for me this happens when the poet’s craft becomes overly insistent. For example, “Wail” takes restlessness to an extreme, placing words and phrases across the page in what might seem like a lack of order—certainly, in a way which emphasizes the spaces between meaning. For me, the result is a distraction, leaving too much room in which to notice structure as artifice. But then one might, I suppose, argue that unrest requires an acknowledgement of at least this much dissatisfaction.
The last, and longest, poem in this chapbook is called “Haunt Me. Repeat.” If Miller required me to “unrest” as a prerequisite for becoming her reader, then this may be my response. “Haunt Me. Repeat.” Job done.
Jude Marr is originally from Scotland. She is currently a teaching fellow at Georgia College in Milledgeville, where she is in her third year of a poetry MFA. It’s a long story. Jude’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cortland Review, r.kv.ry., and Words Dance, among others. When not writing or teaching, she reads for Arts & Letters. Jude is poetry editor at Ghost Ocean.