Review by Stephen Allen (email)
by Sandra Miller
Ahsahta Press, Department of English, Boise State University, 1910 University Drive, Boise, ID 83725; ISBN 0-916272-83-4; 92 pp., $16.00 (pb.)
Avant-garde literature, by its very nature, is difficult, frustrating, and anger-inducing, and that is when it succeeds. Habits of interpretation developed on traditional literature provide very little help when faced with something aggressively different. A sympathetic reader, trying to understand an experimental work, will often grab hold of even the slightest clue in the hopes of finding a passkey that will open up the entire work. oriflamme is an avant-garde work, and the cover art is an easily overlooked clue to the nature of Miller's poetic project.
Between the copyright notice and the Library of Congress cataloging information is a brief notice: "Cover art: Olga Rozanova, collaged book cover, Transrational Boog (Zaumnaya Gniga), first transrational book in collaboration with Alexi Kruchenykh and Aliagrov (Roman Jakobson)..." The transrationalists were a group of pre-revolutionary (and briefly post-revolutionary) Russian writers and artists. As writers, they attempted to destabilize the accepted meanings of words: neologisms, puns, ungrammatical constructions, and odd word combinations were among their favorite tools. Perhaps their greatest influence in American literature has been on Language poetry, which perhaps explains why oriflamme could conceivably be grouped under that heading, but there are important differences between Miller's work and, say, Lyn Hejinian's or Charles Bernstein's. Miller's words do more that sit on the page as objects waiting for meaning: they function as complicated, albeit confusing, referents as well as things in and of themselves.
One of the most striking aspects of oriflamme is the visual presentation of the poems. While the Language poets do work with white spaces, they rarely do so to such an extent as Miller. oriflamme can be treated as a work of visual art in its own right: the placements of lines and the arrangement of stanzas, and the corresponding white spaces that are more of a presence in the book than an absence, make a statement in their own right. It is possible to take aesthetic pleasure in the book without reading a single word. This goes some way towards explaining why one poem in the book, "sordid intimacy of eiderdown : traversed by waves." is printed twice, once in the same typeface as the rest of the poems and immediately afterward in a smaller typeface that allows the entire poem to appear on one page. The appearance of the poem is clearly important here, important enough to reduce the typeface to near illegibility so as to fit it on one page and render it completely visible in a single viewing. It is interesting to note here that Miller, according to the author's note on the back of oriflamme, "currently practices calligraphy and hand-making books," two activities that treat the text and book as artistic objects as well as conduits of information.
Still, while the layout may be attractive and worth separate consideration, oriflamme is made up of words, and the words demand attention. Miller's poems are not transparent: they require a lot of work on the reader's behalf to tease out any sort of logical meaning. Consider the third stanza of "[in hernani]": "the paperbells / son a ring / before they are everywhere." So what are "paperbells"? Bells made of paper? Bells associated with newspapers, perhaps belonging to a paperboy, given the "son" in the next line? Or is that "son" a contraction of "sound" or the French son (which also means "sound"). It is possible to go through the entire book engaging in interpretive leaps like these, although it does get exhausting after a while. While Miller's demands on the reader to provide some of the meaning of the text would seem to align her, again, with the Language poets, her multilingual wordplay and deliberate manipulations of grammatical constructs make oriflamme a much more lively work than most Language volumes.
There are also moments of great beauty in oriflamme, from the sparse "A black dog under a pink moon. The black dog under a black moon. // Man in the black harbor" ("Competing light sources.") to the mysterious
the parkflower is bowing
in a room that houses only harmonies there are 2 doors
1 for you &
1 for you
"Everywhere it is face"
("& Still we are heavy to bend.")
to the incantatory
in the arizona highbed
platinum is a color you wear
by the well that feeds the desert
by the well that feels the water
the amplitude of high coyote
were you a thief of sand or water
were you feeding mercury with your
("return from them with red eyes.")
These lines give the impression that Miller would almost certainly be very successful writing mainstream, lyrical verse if she chose to do so.
But she does not choose to do so. She chooses to write difficult poetry with limited appeal to those who read poetry for imagery, form, or voice. On the other hand, oriflamme is a delight for readers who love the play of words and the visual aesthetics of poetry, and it does point in one direction that experimental poetry can take in the years to come. The Language poets have started to enter academia; the New York School is essentially the mainstream now; confessional verse is old hat. Transrationalism may well be a way to go to expand poetry's limits.
Stephen Allen holds an MA in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He currently lives in Michigan, where he works as a free-lance writer, translator, and underpaid hourly help at various fine retail establishments.