The villanelle that provides this collection with its title expresses the theme of the book. Under different circumstances, says the speaker, “If I had wheels or love,” this would be world of delight and praise. “I could make prayers or poems on and on/ If I had wheels or love, I would be gone.” These ideal conditions do not exist, however, and therefore the speaker is not gone but here, trying to make poems and praises in a flawed world.
This collection combines the previous eight books of American metaphysical poet Vassar Miller and adds a group of uncollected poems. The result is a solid volume with a graceful introduction by George Garrett, who notes that the “genuinely religious experience, dealt with directly by a living artist of the first rank, was as astonishing then [at the time of Miller’s first book] as it is now or any time; shocking, really, in our secular and self-absorbed times.” Indeed, Vassar Miller’s melding of verbal dexterity with a tough-minded Christianity would win T. S. Eliot’s approval. Other elements in her blend, Texas womanhood and physical handicap, give her poetry the unique flavor that has won it international praise. Miller’s work was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and it has been widely anthologized both in America and in Europe.
Born in Houston in 1924, Miller has remained a lifelong Texas resident. Afflicted from birth with cerebral palsy and therefore limited in physical self-expression, she began writing as a child on a typewriter her father brought home from the office to amuse her. She went on to win early acclaim both for her craftsmanship and for the mixture of rebellion and resignation that characterizes her poems, and she has continued to write, publishing book after book over a period of almost forty years, refining her style and profiting from the literary currents that flowed about her.
Indeed, a reading of If I Had Wheels or Love is a trip through postwar American poetry, for while Miller’s basic concerns remain the same and her voice is constant, her forms and styles reflect what was happening in each era of poetry and politics. Her 1950’s poems have the formal exactness of the time. In the 1960’s her poems loosen somewhat and become more personal, showing the influence of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and the other so-called “confessional” poets. Her 1970’s poems are more socially conscious; the 1980’s bring a renewal of interest in form. Miller has the distinction of having been both an Old and a New Formalist, with all the variations in between. Yet elements of pattern have always loomed large in Miller’s work, and even her free verse might be more accurately described as idiosyncratically formal.
Paradox is a major element of Miller’s work, especially in the early poems. Sonnets with Donne-like conclusions abound in the first collections, as do other paradoxical poems that explore the position of woman in the middle kingdom, between animal and angel, divided against herself. That Christianity makes heavy demands while offering gifts of solace is also a topic of her early verse, as is the ambiguity of the human impulse to speech. Many of these poems are addressed to God, demanding His intervention in her dark night of the soul; these poems bring to mind Donne’s sonnet “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” (1633). An example from Miller’s first book, Adam’s Footprint (1956), is her sonnet “Paradox,” which begins “Mild yoke of Christ, most harsh to me not bearing,/ You bruise the neck that balks, the hands that break you . . .” The speaker piles paradox upon paradox until the conclusion, “Blind me to blindness, deafen me to deafness/ So will Your gifts of sight and hearing plunder/ My eyes with lightning and my ears with thunder.”
If some of these poems play more to the mind than to the heart, the following collections become less mannered and more direct. Their burden remains the same—an energetic and muscular wrestling match with the angel—but the definition of womanhood within Christianity becomes more intrusive, the speaker more definitely feminine. “Spinster’s Lullaby,” from My Bones Being Wiser (1965), illustrates this change. The speaker, lulling the baby in her “scraggly lap,” says
I rejoice, no less a woman
With my nipples pinched and dumb
To your need whose one word’s sucking.
Never mind, though. To my rocking
Nap a minute, find your thumb
While I gnaw a dream and nod...
(The entire section is 1862 words.)