Though Vassar Miller is a poet whose range of techniques is limited, the forms within which she works are brought to mastery and high finish. These forms frame her tale of suffering love and of spirit tested by a life of pain and profound introspection. Her earliest poetry springs from her close study of the New England poet Robinson, an exacting formalist whose elegant short poems recounted the bitter lives and emotional corruption of villagers in his imaginary Maine town of Tilbury. Miller’s graduate thesis on Robinson worries out the thread of faith and hope running through Robinson’s poetry, which he composed at a time when New England had ceased to be an important economic region of the United States and its citizens had resigned themselves to lives of failure and cynical resentment. Her study zeroed in on his portrayals of trapped individuals and how they dealt with their plight, either by suicide or drunkenness or by tapping some inner resource of faith.
Adam’s Footprint, which collects her earliest poetry, explores her world of pain, physical and emotional, in compact stanzas of eight lines with neat envelope or alternating rhyme schemes. One may detect in them the echo of hymns, based loosely on ballad measure but here straightened out into full eight- and ten-syllable lines. In an interview published in Heart’s Invention: On the Poetry of Vassar Miller (1988, edited by Stephen Ford-Brown), Miller described her childhood notebooks as “filled with miserable imitations of equally miserable hymns.” Later, she would turn to Emily Dickinson and master a variable, minimalist lyric of excruciating pointedness. Nevertheless, the hymn would remain a base measure of her rhythmic imagination, as it did for Dickinson herself. Both writers are to be credited with having composed secular literary hymns in which sensuous, erotic longings have their place in religious meditation.
Adam’s Footprint carefully develops a series of metaphors of the body through feet and coordinated motions, as Miller describes her experiences as a handicapped child. In the title poem, she compares her infirmity to being outcast, an exile like Adam, whose footprint marks the path that others of misfortune must follow. Even here, however, Miller carefully avoids self-pity; the poem’s scrupulous artistry is the adequate sublimation of her pains. The real ballet of elegant motions occurs in the mind, in the artist’s skillful execution of her words even as she cries out against her freakish disability. Another poem, “Spastic Child,” laments another child’s inability to speak, in a poem lushly confident to express his pain for him. The artist of these poems is the alter ego of the crippled infant, a second, idealized self technically projected out of the subject’s own suffering intellect.
The sonnet, one of Miller’s favorite forms, is a perfect vehicle for the argumentative lyric she writes in Adam’s Footprint, with its eight-line assertion or question and its six-line rebuttal. In “The Magnitude of Zero,” Adam is the first child, here called the “first citizen,” “whom earth splays huge upon my nothing’s rack.” Verbs such as “trudge,” “quail,” and “splays” underscore the labored movements of the subject. “The Final Hunger” begins, “Hurl down the nerve-gnarled body,” as the reader follows her to painful sleep in another very forceful sonnet. Miller is equally adept at the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet forms. “Beside a Deathbed,” in the Shakespearean mode, closes on a feminine, two-syllabled rhyme, lying/dying, a small flourish of her technical mastery.
Miller’s poetry took a new direction in Texas writing; the tradition of verse in the Southwest is dominated by female poets whose subjects included inspirational thoughts, moral homilies, studies of the landscape, and overall expressions of Christian faith and calm endurance. Miller’s probing lyrics delve deep into a world of error and torment, failure and unrequited erotic longings. Though other women had hinted of their dissatisfactions with life on the ranch and in the small prairie towns, Miller’s poetry is overtly stark, even brutal in its portrayal of a life of toil and loneliness.
Wage War on Silence
It was perhaps coincidence that Miller should come of age just as the confessional poets were publishing their own first works on similar themes, although with far more intensity. Her second book, Wage War on Silence, bore some resemblance to the poems of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, who make up the core of the confessional movement of the 1960’s and whose poems dissect their own witheringly painful lives in the public arena of literature. Miller became associated with the women writers of the movement and doubtless benefited by the connection. Her favorite among them was Sexton, to whom she later dedicated one of her poems. In fact, Miller’s literary associations all take her back to New England, from Dickinson to Robinson and contemporary writers, among whom she found a parallel preoccupation with the inner life, a subject often avoided by other Texas poets.
“Without Ceremony,” a Shakespearean sonnet with the “turn” or riposte saved for the final closing couplet, is an impassioned prayer for mercy addressed to Father Pain, the Word “in whom our wordiness dissolves/ When we have not a prayer except ourselves.” Piety, on one hand, rejects artfulness in prayer but, on the other, is proffered with immaculately textured artifice. Unresolved in Miller’s poetry is this double standard, this conflict between a pure, unrehearsed experience of her faith and the demands of art. The poems insist upon the reality of their emotions and settings but frame them within the ordered, compact structure of verses. Part of the power of such writing lies in its tension between conflicting attitudes: a singeing, violent emotion and the limpid formality of its expression. Like the poet Denise Levertov, who admires Miller’s writing, Miller insists on the most exacting measures for poetry that describes the chaos of modern life. Both poets reject the mode of spontaneous composition as unfit for true poetry.
Songs abound in Wage War on Silence; some, such as “Love Song for the Future,” are in the racing rhythms of trochaic meter, where the beat falls on the first syllable of the foot and pushes the language along in a quick, dancing motion, as in John Donne’s line “Go and catch a falling star.” Miller’s opening lines are “To our ruined vineyards come,/ Little foxes, for your share.” The rhyme scheme is ababcdcd, a lacing pattern that...
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