Poetic neighborhoods

When you introduce multiple characters and tag dialogue in a short poem, you make all kinds of trouble for yourself. Part of it is just fitting it in: most contemporary poetry in print is going for economy, resonance, surprise, evocation in fragments. You can toss out some of the names and the “he said”s by strategic use of titles, typefaces, and margins, but the imperatives of interwoven stories can still add layers of difficulty to a genre most people find difficult enough.

There is a kind of poetry book, though—not narrative epic, not verse drama, not the modernist long poem with its collage aesthetic—that, by arrangement of short poems into sequences, plausibly fuses multiple voices into a noisy, sociable whole. The scope of the collection is defined by place and time more than by perspective, recurring ideas, or a frame of mind. Two of my favorites are Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville and Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred. They concern Chicago’s South Side and Harlem respectively, presenting portraits of neighborhoods by giving voice to various residents. Many of the poems stand well alone and are often anthologized, but they work even better in context, returned to their home communities.

If there’s a twentieth-century tradition of this kind of book, it’s pretty obscure. Hughes and Brooks are certainly responding to each other; Claudia Emerson, whose books demonstrate a strong sense of place and character, often expresses admiration for Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie; and the three blurbers of Lumina, Heather Ross Miller’s new book (Emerson is one), all compare it to the most famous example, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (I say famous, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about teaching it). I suspect that most poets dreaming of a multiple-voiced lyric sequence invent their way forwards with relatively few models to hand. For a contemporary writer, further, lyric sequences can be pretty impractical. It’s hard to build an audience for such work by publishing bits in U.S. magazines, where the one-to-two page stand-alone poem is king, narrative is suspect, and readerships are small and splintered. (Can you tell I’m worrying over some long poems and sequences of my own?)

Miller’s Lumina, named for a fictional aluminum-smelting settlement in North Carolina, is subtitled “a town of voices.” It’s a beautiful and elegiac book, reanimating lost family members and a drowned landscape: the dammed river powering everything is “a dazzled brain-damaged giant just/ gone to sleep a while.” The main character, often the speaker, is Nell Leopard, but voices and perspectives from different generations in the same place jangle together. Miller finds a sonic analogue for those shifting resemblances that is much more like Brooks than Masters: irregular rhyme, often internal, sometimes just a slantwise echo of vowels and consonants. I could pick out almost any passage as an example but here are two:

Engineers came to furnace

our bright falling water

and they meant business.

They meant deep water

deep enough to spark

the whole hot place.

They meant hard work

hard enough to keep men

all night tasting salt straight

down their bare faces… (“Nell sees them pen the Falls, dam the Yadkin” 2)

The passage begins with a command: “Listen.” What I hear is imperfect rhyme: furnace/ business, spark/ work, place/ straight/ tasting/ faces. Or:

She had asthma sometimes

so bad, she beat through a screen door

to get her breath, beating the screen

to death. People drown beating

their way through a door to the

last breath. It’s true, and more. (“Mark Drowns,” 18)

The most salient rhymes are breath/ death and door/more, but those pairs also chime with “get,” “bad,” and “their,” and the assonance of beat/ screen/ the flows through the lines. Further, these sound-families intermarry in the desperately-linked sight rhyme of beat and breath. And I get hypoxic just writing about the line break on “the”: the dying girl’s last breath is just out of reach. The story of Lumina is moving, the characters compelling, and that’s why Miller’s book is worth reading, really. But it makes a lot of sense for a book about memory and inheritance to play around with echo, and rhyme harmonizes its ingredients in a way that delights me.

I must be forgetting this book’s other kin; if my description of Miller’s achievement reminds you of similarly populated collections, I’d love to be informed/ reminded.