Until near the end of the twentieth poem (“Causing the Blind to See”) in her carefully ordered collection of dramatic and interior monologues, Heather Ross Miller withholds the words of her title: Hard Evidence. In all three of the named sections of her book, the poet dares the reader to see, and what she would have the reader see is not the appearance that normally passes for reality. In the final section’s title poem, the speaker says, “I command you: tell me,! do waked-up eyes recognize anything? Does the hard evidence! at first hand! live up to your promising land?” By this point in Miller’s book, that final question rings as much with social and political fervor as with spiritual intensity. The “promising land” brings to mind the “Promised Land,” and it reminds also of the promises of the American Dream, so often unfulfilled.
Not since Flannery O’Connor has an American writer dealt so directly with the need for Christian vision. Miller’s intensity, her comic gestures, colloquial diction, and reliance on myth (and, moreover, specifically Christian myth) oblige the reader to think of O’Connor, but Miller’s work is not derivative. Like O’Connor, Miller is a fiction writer and a Southerner who writes about people and situations likely to strike the modern sensibility as grotesque.
“Causing the Blind to See,” the title poem of the book’s third section, opens with the words “At first sight.” Then the speaker enumerates things such as hot-air balloons, firebrands, bursting barium, and “a lapis lazuli galaxy,” all of which she says “crowd you.” The woman says “Here’s a picture of me. Look at it hard.” To make her point stick, she amplifies in comic excess her injunction to the reader “to really see.” She says “really take a look at, give the once-over,/ get a load of, ogle and glare and gape and gawk,/ wink-blink, contemplate and view.” A glance is not sufficient for what Miller and her speaker would tell—or show.
The following poem, “Men Like Trees Walking,” pushes further the poet’s insistence upon “really seeing,” which is to say achieving spiritual vision. The Gospel account of Christ’s healing a blind man (Mark 8:24) provides the poem’s title. After spitting upon the man’s eyes and touching him, Jesus asks if he sees anything, and the man replies, “I see men as trees, walking.” After Jesus again touches the man’s eyes and makes him look up, “he was restored and saw everything clearly.” Miller’s witty poem involves a man addressing a blind woman, telling her “it’s a blind alley, I mean stone blind,/ and we’re flying blind,/ groping in the dark blindfolded,/ the blind leading the blind.” He tells the woman “It’s a big blind date./ I am your sighted friend,” and looking through her “ruined eyes,” he knows what she sees: “men like trees walking,/ and one man calling, Wait, look again.” That “one man calling” is Christ, but the speaker himself, though he can tell the woman “This is seeing,” is himself blind, glad that she does not see him “tap the curb,/ rap my tin cup.” He is “walking like trees,/ trying to find white crumbs, stones,/ . . . walking like trees,/ then gone.”
The urgency of Miller’s meanings in the final fourteen poems of her collection does not prevent her retaining the quirkiness of the poems in her opening sections, but her poem “Magdalen” deals directly with what the Christian calls mystery. In simple but mythic ways, this poems makes explicit the book’s specifically Christian import. Magdalen addresses the Christ: “You are the Rosetta stone.” The allusion is open to anyone with a decent desk dictionary: The discovery of a basalt tablet of Ptolemy V (196 b.c.) multiply inscribed in Greek, Egyptian hieroglyph, and Demotic provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphics. The poem is wholly sensuous and identifies the Christ as a force which brings multiple images into one.
The final strophe of “Magdalen” returns the reader to the Rosetta stone, while also summoning up the stone that Mary Magdalen and her companions found rolled away from the sepulchre of Christ on the morning of the Resurrection (Mark 16). Magdalen says “the stone waits/ like my ear on your heart,/ my hand on your hand.” The final mystery of the poem equates Christ with the Word and with the origin of spiritual sight. Magdalen tells Jesus, “And the word you speak/ translates morning into women who see angels,/ into one woman who, weeping/ wakens you.” The women not only witness a miracle but also participate in it with their weeping. Christ’s “translation” makes the women one woman, thus removing distinctions among them, and they waken him.
“Presenting the Child in the Temple” updates the story of the Christ discoursing with the learned doctors when he was twelve. The speaker voices community sentiment about the shameless display of a fatherless boy in new clothes. This boy, younger than the twelve-year-old Christ (Luke 2:42-46), “colors in real blood,/ bears down hard, running out of line.” He colors birds and “then kills them/ to show us he means business.” The speaker admits that “these are hard words/ and like swords pierce our hearts,” but “We just watch, hoping it’s a phase.” The poems may be an easier achievement than others in this section of Miller’s book, but the ironies build from the speaker’s failure to grasp that the Savior (of whom there are memories in fragments of hymns) is more than a momentary indiscretion to be suffered.
The next poem, “Instructions in the Faith,” returns the focus to vision and, with its abruptly dramatic statement, rivals the best of the poems here. The poem is spoken to St. Paul by Christ, apparently at the very moment of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The Bible account begins Acts 22:6 and ends several verses later with Ananias restoring Paul’s sight and with the beginning of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. “Before you came along breathing threats and murder,/ gathering evidence against me,” Christ says, the Romans had already “pierced through me,/ rolled a big rock over the last of me.” The allusion to the pierced side and the big rock recalls similar images in other poems in this volume. The words of Christ are starkly concrete: “In this blind breathless dark, Paul,/ I foraged three days/ still hunting anything,...
(The entire section is 2613 words.)