Hard Evidence Summary
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 entire section is 2,613 words.)