I began reading A Bow From My Shadow—a new collection of poetry by Luke Irwin and Alex Miller Jr., available from Ecco Qua Press—in a car wash.
The thud-slap-thud of the rotary brushes rumbled around me while the soap suds darkened the windows, cutting me off from the world long enough to leave me alone with the opening poems. I tend to associate poetry with this kind of solitude.
But the greats often remind us that poetry is a conversation, a society, as when Etheridge Knight speaks back to Gwendolyn Brooks like an impertinent student in “The Sun Came,” or when Frost chides Yeats’ other-worldliness in “Birches.”
Irwin and Miller’s collection is further evidence that the poetic project can just as often be convivial as solitary. Their poems alternate pages, making the book feel less like a single companion than an invitation to a long friendly evening.
The collection begins with a statement of style. Miller’s poem “Drying Lines” is followed by Irwin’s “Dry Mouth Aubade,” and both feel as if they were intended to display both poets in their characteristic strengths and weaknesses.
“Drying Lines” is well within the tradition of the post-war Mid-Atlantic lyric: an observational sketch taking in the domestic ritual of laundry, moving subtly toward a loose volta by the end. Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney loom. Meanwhile “Dry Mouth Aubade” drives more into surrealism, declaring its affinity with that other stream of 20th Century American verse: the John Berryman/Kenneth Patchen fun-house, its speaker sliding in and out of sleep, reality refracted through a dream filter.
Both are fine examples of the respective poets’ styles. But both are also in danger of failing eros, Miller by way of an easy sort of domesticity, Irwin by weirding desire out of recognition. Fortunately, this is a set-up. The two performers have made their first glides across the stage and from here things only get more interesting.
Miller quickly shows signs of stretching himself with “Song: Atlantic Wreckage.” A study in four parts, the poem sees unsettled images approaching, blue herons, drifting fog, razor clams, which all coalesce, with a sense of continuing surprise, into people.
the wampanoag saw clouds,
hoarfrosted fogdrifts that only codifed as ships
when human arms started unloading silver, bibles, axes,
Meanwhile on the next page, Irwin’s speaker continues to flirt with dreams, but in “Ninny” a single moment grounds the piece, anchored by the loss of a voice that the poem cannot restore:
What will she do? My ninny, my dearheart, my child,
my mother—lost in the groves she grew green in the heat
of first flight.
My heart is an old man pulling his white beard He sits on
fog grown on pale lawns. He has a thick overcoat
Stressed syllables pile up: “dearheart,” “grew green,” “first flight,” precipitous sloping iambs from high to higher, as if chasing the margin in a loping gate.
This is the first intimation we get of Irwin’s approach to loss. The speaker of his poems seems engaged in a pursuit whose quarry keeps slipping out of view. This chase, the attempt to name what is just beyond sight, returns with erotic overtones in “Ars Poetica.”
My ghosts uncoil, walk her between rooms.
I bribe the guards of memory
to wiretap the textures of her tongue.
The speaker’s ghosts pursue an ephemeral figure, but then the poem crashes into matter and sense by skillfully evoking a difficult feeling: the desire to remember more vividly, eavesdrop on the past, recapture what was once solidly tactile.
Miller also returns to eros with a vengeance near the collection’s mid-point. “What Perishes” is his best performance in the collection. The poem echoes the domesticity of “Drying Lines,” but this time in the kitchen instead of the clothesline, and with a more amorous eye. Peaches are being sliced, and the poem takes their perspective:
For a while the peaches thought
their point was to hang ripe alone in the orchard. But
there is also
the human mouth and tongue, a devouring, companionable
redness, preening in the dark.
The poem manages to wrap up incarnate sacrifice into the daily renunciations of domestic life, all through the culinary transmigrations of a peach. This is Miller at his best, raising the domestic into the sacred, veering into the erotic and back again, by way of death. The poem rings a Blakean note, echoing the Book of Thel’s “we live not for ourselves” as much as Christ’s “unless a seed die it remains alone.”
It is a difficult tightrope to walk, and one could fault Miller for his unblinkingly male sensibility, but he lands the dismount, managing to fuse the disparate themes together in the kind of alchemy ambitious poetry demands.
As A Bow From My Shadow moves toward its close, both poets return to the elegiac, Miller in “Autumn Moss,” for the late Robert Siegel, and Irwin with the remarkable “Inexorable,” where books, conversation about books, and the thought of a child long dead weave in and out of the poem’s sight:
All movement is motion toward God–
That’s Aquinas lifting Aristotle–
The infant’s ascent is inexorable to heaven,
Past these pattering veils, poor words,
As surely as their fallen motion fails.
This poem, like many in the collection, laments the failure of words, here with a kind of pity as the child’s soul passes the poor words falling behind on the way to heaven. It is a gentle poem, a gentleness hard-earned elsewhere in the collection by Irwin’s persistent, unsettling irony.
Irwin spends much of his time distancing the reader, separating images from their emotional referents. In A Bow From My Shadow he has guppies pondering Lucretius, video gamers quoting Donne, and Oprah becoming a category of being. The reader is delightfully off balance in his work. So when he offers grief simply yet artfully, the effect is startling, like a sudden undertow.
Throughout, A Bow From My Shadow offers opportunities for reassessment, the way great conversations shape-shift across an evening. The two poets trade lines, offering new contexts for each others words, commenting on their contrasting aesthetics.
By the end of the collection, like two old friends in a decades-long argument, they’ve come near exchanging positions. Miller is restless, reminding himself in “Twitch on the Line” to “adjust the tautness. Keep the line out.” He ends more alert, more alive to the strangeness in words than he began.
Meanwhile Irwin’s “Atlas” closes the collection, beginning with what rings like a statement of hope, or self-deception: “At last/I am simple.” But the unsettling murmurs he brings into poetry are not quieted.
At last, at last
the chatter of tidal life
when considering a thing
The speaker seems to have found a place for the chatter, leaving with something less than contentment, but more confident and mature than the reader might have expected from the collection’s opening.
A Bow From My Shadow is a delightful cumulative experience, showcasing two young poets eager to challenge each other in their craft. I finished reading it in a cafe, the bustle of the lunch rush building around me. Conversations collided, people built flimsy bridges with words then stepped out onto them—as everyone must, everyday. I closed the book satisfied that Irwin and Miller had entered this fray and acquitted themselves well.