A Dwarfed Lushness

Reassembling Still, Collected Poems, David Miller
(316pp, £14.95, Shearsman Books)

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David Miller's Reassembling Still collects 'his poetry that he wishes to keep' with the exceptions of his visual poetry and the ongoing sequence Spiritual Letters. Rather than being chronological the poems are divided up into what Miller describes in the notes section as having 'affinities'. However a quick read through would tell you that on the surface there are affinities between many of the poems regardless of where you decide to dip in. Thematic concerns - notably phenomenology, friendship, memory and dreams - crop up again and again. Stylistically the choices of prose and minimalism, regularly meeting head-to-head, often creates a mood of ambivalence. As Miller writes in his poem 'There and Here (Fragments)' 'In my own early prose texts I worked, out of Nerval and Lowry, with coincidence of events ('the linking-up of things') as the subject matter, and with juxtapositions, interrelational linking or cutting, as 'method''. There are also a number of lyric poems and elegies in this large body of work spanning 1974 to the present day.

'Suite', one of the first poems in the book, is indicative of the marvellous way Miller's poems refuse to add up neatly. Micro-fictions, perhaps beginnings of fictions, are set up against isolated lines, detailing specifics. We could say that many of the lines are presented without authorial comment: 'Looking through a sequence of gaps, holes.' The title 'Suite', presumably drawn from music, denotes that the sections of the poem (movements), are connected and also unconnected. In other poems the more colloquial term 'mix' is used as in 'South London Mix'. In 'Suite', as elsewhere, the quietest of dots demarcates a section has closed. The use of white space, in terms of spaces between line breaks, two line spaces in the case of 'Suite', carries the energies of a poetics that is at once joyful yet also sombre. The reader is often given a picture as if through a gauze. Miller's poetry resists allowing the sections, or even the stanzas within the sections, to connect through any logical or sequential train. Yet, at the same time, you leave poems feeling as if you have just read something with a totality about it, a feeling that parts belong together unified by mood.

Many prose poems have the effect of being reality, dream and somnambulistic all at the same time. The feeling you get is comparable to the films of Svankmayer, Tarkovsky and Lynch. At times sentences seem crystal clear, sharp and real yet the effect of re-reading, because the prose is not followed through as it would usually be in a novel, allows you to go through the looking glass so to speak; it's hallucinatory and conjures up feelings of deja vu. For example take this prose passage from 'The London/Hartgrove Notebook':

'Sitting at a cafˇ table, the young woman's face is partially hidden from your gaze by a grille. If you were to sit at her table you'd witness the drawing she makes with pastels on a blank postcard, endeavouring to locate what lies before her.'

In another prose passage from 'The Book of the Spoonmaker' a woman is 'astonished to see me there' when 'I opened the door'. Whether fictional or non-fictional accounts this resonates with our own encounters with the uncanny.

'Primavera' is the first poem in the book to feel like it has a strong minimalist strain with its use of repetition, simple language and reduced vocabulary. In section three of 'Primavera' a near repeated line - 'white chalk on a blackboard' - becomes 'blue chalk on a blackboard' then 'green' then 'yellow' until finally all four colours find themselves 'on the pavement'. It's no co-incidence that Miller was editor of the superb Stride published essays The ABCs of Robert Lax.

In the untitled pages from the book Gloria this reductive style continues. The first untitled poem is a meditation on white and black surfaces, many that seem to be witnessed from rooms. This is a flaneur's poem, a flaneur who regards the 'white surface balcony wall, above the porch opposite my window'. Any numbers of Impressionists have taken the position of gazing from the balcony but I am particularly reminded of the balconies and clean style of Gustave Caillebotte's Paris when reading Miller. Yet Miller's view is a grubbier one: London walls. This exclusive meditation on black and white elements presents a limited colour palette. Miller invents a dwarfed-lushness in these kind of restraints producing a sense of calm. A 'white surface' begins to produce colour: 'the light of a cloudy day'. In this poem and throughout Miller seems to suggest that it's not the object of mediation that's important but the mediation itself. He highlights the importance of avoiding clichˇ; there is harmonium.

Miller's poems often taken place in his locus amoenus - the city, the cafˇ - with the relationship of people to objects or landscape being very pronounced. There is at once arbitrariness to the subject matter yet also the choices feel very deliberate. Part of a three line poem (again without title although this is not indicative of the majority of the poems), reads line 1: 'white terrace house opposite red & blue T-shirts hanging from one of the windows.' And line 3 '...I write beneath a light.' Objects and author are named in place.

Perhaps the most unusual poem in the collection concerns a key theme throughout Reassembling Still
, that of friendship. It describes a postcard sent to Miller from the sculptor Mathias Goeritz. It's a good example of the importance Miller's poetry places on friendship and relationships in general. Goeritz we are told does two endearing things by sending the postcard: first he thanks Miller for tipping him off about 'a Spanish Translation of Chris Jones' book Design Methods'. And second he graffiti's the front of the postcard to make a unique gift: 'a sketch in biro of a building-sculpture, so that the figure of the skier was only barely visible underneath the drawing'. Intimacy is vital in these poems. From a formal point of view the poem about Goeritz's postcard is in many ways like other prose micro-fictions in the book yet this poem is unusual as the 'event' is told (slightly) differently four times, there are five paragraphs almost repeated - paradoxically slight shifts in vocabulary change the poem radically yet also do little to alter it. Whilst Miller's matter-of-fact writing remains, in each 'mix' Miller calls into question the isness of events and the isness of the poem.

Although initially the title of this Collected Poems, Reassembling Still
, might seem to refer to the author's state of existence the phrase more aptly applies to the way that the units in poems both do and don't talk to each other as they reassemble. A beautiful vision of what poetry can be: both motile and sessile - reassembling still.

    © James Davies 2014