The Limits, by Alice Miller, (Auckland University Press, 2014), 64 pp., $24.99
Alice Miller’s book The Limits is a brave, uncompromising poetry debut that demands multiple readings. Her poetry is sharp, perceptive and intelligent; language is pared to the bone and nothing is wasted. There is no immediate narrative or simple thematic arc; no stable personae observing and reflecting on the world. I was, on first reading, a little baffled by some of her mysterious poems and by the dislocations in place and time, especially the abrupt jump from the siege of Troy to Antarctica’s white spaces. But I wanted to go back. Miller’s poetry is a splash of cold water to the face.
What, then, is The Limits about? The book contains some extraordinarily original love poems. The oddness of these poems lies in the removal of the immediately personal. Miller’s first poem opens with these lines from ‘Body’:
It’s strange to want to give someone the earth
again. It’s strange to be the same planet
but split to forge a new, raw globe,
past plundered by lovers and strangers.
Miller’s voice is personal but there is no simple recourse to an ‘I’: a stable observer telling his or her story. What Miller does is attempt to situate herself not just on the earth but as a part of the earth. The Limits tests multiple limits: self/other, madness/sanity, sea/earth, printed word/white space, note/interval, observer/observed; yet this testing is never solely an intellectual exercise – this is a sometimes nervy poetry of striking compression which conveys a complex re-thinking of self and landscape. It’s nature poetry, but not as we know it.
Before her first poem Miller prefaces the book with these lines from George Oppen’s ‘Of Being Numerous’:
They were patient
With the world.
This will never return, never,
Unless having reached their limits
They will begin over, that is,
Over and over
Oppen’s work indicates the centrality of the Objectivist school of poetics to Miller’s practice: the act of perception rather than lyrical reflection or the crafting of sound will dominate. Louis Zukofsky’s definition of Objectivist sensibility applies wonderfully to The Limits: ‘Writing occurs which is the detail, not the mirage, of seeing, of thinking with things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody.’ Melody is central to the composition of Miller’s book, as poems are linked by the picking up of a word from a previous poem as much as by any linear development of an argument; one of the sections called ‘Steps’ I took in its musical sense, the French pas also coming to mind.
To be patient with the world: is such a patience possible now or is it lost, and if lost, what then? It’s in the patient detail required for nature writing that we see the nature/culture, self/nature limit most visibly. The wilderness would be our final limit as a place unspoilt by human hands or seen by human eyes. Here’s the opening to Miller’s ‘Antarctica 1’:
Pulled into one human shadow, a single outlined
Form, pulled into, struggling
This immediate and unforgettable image foregrounds the difficulty in imagining nature outside our own human shadow and recognising that our actions threaten this world. In Antarctica’s great vastness we are confined, pulled into, constrained – the very obverse of the romantic sublime. Miller, though, is not content with an easy post-modern irony. In poems such as ‘Recon’ the constant presence of the past reminds us of the violence of human endeavour and the centrality of war:
When we go to the field
to recover our weapons
All our axehandles
have grown back to trees
It’s not that Miller rejects the zen-quietude of contemporary nature poetry – say Gary Synder’s work – it’s just that her sense of time is so much more interesting than an immediate focus on ‘the present’. The Limits successfully couples landscapes with timescapes. Miller displays a subtle sense of the past as present, and so the clarity of her poetry suggests a present different from our own but not simply identifiable as the past: in this way the past/present limit is touched on in her work. Miller’s interest and use of Objectivist poetics is never at the cost of her historical imagination. Our habitats include the narratives and myths of who we think we are and our hopes, and fears, of whom we might be.
Miller’s poetry probes the limits of our own maps and schemas. What we cannot bear is not so much the unknowable but a knowledge that would push us from our thrones. The remarkable poem ‘Ocean’ begins:
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 trust the tides
There has never been a hierarchy of trees
Miller deftly indicates the operation of language as ownership – in a New Zealand context, Oppen’s ‘They’ which opens the book suggests tangata whenua. The ocean surging at our feet reminds us of another old story, and there are many in the book, of King Canute. The oceans of the real splash against the limits of our thought and representation as a people are displaced from one way of knowing to another episteme. Yet not all knowledge may be known to us. In ‘Nature’, Miller writes
There are designs that nature has my Lord
She will not share with anyone.
This is a debut book of poetry I will be sure to return to again as I await Miller’s next work.
Harvey Molloy’s poetry has appeared in Best New Zealand Poems, Blackmail Press, Brief, Enamel, Hue and Cry, Jaam, Lancashire Life, Landfall, The Lumière Reader, NZ Listener, Poetry New Zealand, Snorkel and Takahe. His first book of poems, Moonshot, was published by Steele Roberts in 2008. He is a reviewer for New Zealand Books and was the 2013 poetry editor of Jaam magazine. He lives and teaches in Wellington.