I never want to go see the Grand Canyon. There's so many postcards of it. Who needs to see it in person? Why should I see something the world has already has seen? That's what I kept thinking when I read gay poet Greg Miller's "Watch" (University of Chicago Press, 2009)--one of those double meaning titles that feels like default wit. Except the trips he or his protagonist seem to have taken have been a bit more expensive.
What's with the University of Chicago Press? The press has always been sort of dull. One of the few exceptions is Bruce Smith; Miller and Randall Mann could learn a thing or two from him. Smith's wild, eccentric rhymes feel so much younger than the rote hard rhymes of Miller.
And why is this press obsessed with gay poets who are aces at scansion. Do you immediately have a shoe in the door if you can master hard end rhyme? Is this what academic queer affirmation action has been reduced to?
Get over Thom Gunn, guys! He's so 1993. For the University of Chicago Press, Joshua Weiner edited a collection of Thom Gunn essays, assembling a few good ones, one great, making it a worthwhile anthology. How many pieces really matter in any compliation? That's the fun of reading an edited collection--you feel like you're the editor when you separate even further the special from the dross.
You would think that a reputable university press, they would be looking for some aesthetic diversity. That's one of my goals with this review: to encourage University of Chicago to include a more diverse aesthetic range. If I was an editor there, I would say their books feel dated even before they're released.
With rhymes or no rhymes, Miller's poems that aim for a meditative , transcendent quality, perfunctorily weight down with high culture/literary allusions. It's like reading a Sam Hamill derivative crossed with a Richard Howard travelogue.
Here's the opening of the poem "Lost" where Howard wins out:
A cloud from the Cape's base stalks us catlike
making fantastic shapes rising and stretching,
white megalithic pincers and mute O's,
until the wind turns again and I'm lost
I hear the breaking waves, one warbler, then
the drone of an engine scuttling the cliff.
Miller's trademark meditative poems here, emblematic of a lot of his work. You think that if you really are "watching," privileging descriptive pictures of this world that you, as a poet, would see something a bit more idiosyncratic.
Unfortunately, Miller allows himself to become a pretty decent tour guide, taking us to a stop where "Churchill summered here. Napoleon spent/the night once in a small, freestanding room." And then, of course, things culminate "At dusk in the Greek theatre I watch/stars piece the cobalt dome and I hear wings." It's the ultimate middle-class epiphany: your summer vacation becomes a moment of spiritual transcendence, making you feel guilty about the trip most people can't afford. Which perhaps is an unfair thing to say. But what surprises me about this book is how much seems so self-content with itself. You can't help but wonder what redemption Miller could find in Disneyworld.
At the same, there's nothing wrong with having money, but what feels like a sham is its narrative arc. Why does the pathos for his father's illness in the first part of the three-section book seem to drive the protagonist in his spiritual journey? Worse the poems are poor. Here's the second stanza of "River":
My father's legs were swollen.
His once thin ankles barely fit his shoes.
His heart no longer fed his body
Toxins and liquids began to drown him.
His swollen doctors didn't see
He couldn't breathe.
The lines are as flat as the poems of the shockingly overrated Patrick Phillips--there's only so much of this father-son suffering we can take. As Miller himself writes "Maybe artless misery's what's true." Maybe. But this is taking it to an extreme.
Autobiographical or not, it feels creepy to make the father into such a cipher when he seems to be the impetus for the journey in the rest of the book. Why not eradicate and immediately transport himself into all these foreign countries
I am always suspicious of middle-class poets who travel to faraway places and bring back a bad slide show and spiritual transcendence. Why not create a series of poems simply about indulgence? Why justify it? There's nothing worse than a significant friend who takes up your time with six hundred photos of their trip to Ecuador or Hong Kong. And then apologizes for taking up your entire afternoon.