The title of this collection, elegiaca americana, casts the entire book as an elegy for American culture, with poems offering commentary on climate change—“a fierceness at our backs,” plastics “trashing us” as they “infiltrate oceans”—or America’s militaryindustrial complex, where “… children /will always count less to America than bombs.” Millikin calls America “a stolen world.”
The central elegy in elegiaca americana, however, is for the speaker’s loss of innocence. Traumatic secrets, never to be shared, lurk in her childhood home. Mother teaches daughter to “tell lies to keep the secret safe.” Both parents seem to offer menace: “mother put me to bed without a word, / because I’m my father’s favorite.” Even normal-seeming activities suggest a threat. When the father teaches the daughter to play pool in the back room, a hint of something amiss comes when the natural world pulls the daughter’s attention away from the domestic scene, as though she is dissociating from the moment. She sees “the pear tree, the jacaranda, frangipani, /glistening beads in unforgivable / ropes of light,” the word “unforgivable” transforming the moment from innocent to troubling, a vulnerability suggested by the outdoors permeating the walls of the house. Likewise, the rain, a recurring image, suggests a property being swallowed or blurred, as in “A thousand years of rain under the roots of the longleaf pines” “and even inside the house there are “centuries of rain / behind the mirrors.”
While the speaker cannot bring herself to completely break the taboo against sharing secrets so long buried within the house and within herself, she creates a kind of gothic blur for the reader, the way a well-done horror film creates mood with place details and camera angles, suggesting that the monster or murderer will appear at any moment.
She is explicit about some of the trauma: the death of a twelve-year-old cousin who surprised her father “with his mistress, holding his gun,” or the speaker herself at the age of fourteen placed “in solitary confinement, / as punishment for run-away.” The father is threatening, the mother an accomplice. “I wasn’t safe / in my father’s house but had nowhere else.” She longs for her mother even though the mother’s needs weigh her down, “the way the drowning hold on to anything, anyone.” The daughter must choose her own survival over her mother’s, a choice akin to leaving the South which claims her, while simultaneously “casting her out.”
In the poem “Elegiaca,” she can find no way “through to the self,” a loss she deems generational:
no one knows where great-grandfather came from
except the name of the county, Muscogee. He walked east
toward Savannah, building a house for his ghosts.
The house is still full of those ghosts, the color of rain. Maybe the speaker robs the house of its power by making it so insubstantial. A house is only a building, after all. But who is the family who lived there for generations? There is a sense of mystery: “no one knows where the grandfather came from,” and the county name, Muscogee, suggests a ghostly connection to the indigenous people from whom the land was stolen.
The speaker clearly identifies with the ghosts of the old house. She is a “simulacrum orphan,” “thin as paper money.” At 13, she comes “to dislike being seen.” In twelve “selfie” poems, however, she makes a valiant attempt to reclaim her lost self, so long blurred by the history of the house and her own incomplete memories. One of the selfie poems, “Selfie in Willow Drive Backyard” presents the willows as mourning figures, calling them “pleurants,” which means “weeping” in French. In English “pleurants” are sculpted mourning figures inside a tomb. Referring to the willows in this way suggests a dissolution between the outdoor grounds of the house and its interior, and equates the house with a tomb. The poem is an assertion of self, but, blurred by rain, that self is less than clear. Perhaps the speaker is committing to her own survival, declaring the willows her teachers: “The world I am always building began from you, / water nymphs at the base of roots, / this work of drowning and rising.” This is both an admission of vulnerability and an identification with “rising,” a declaration of indomitability.
In the other selfie poems, moths fill the house and become darts, shadows become words, “a mother tongue for grief,” while some surviving winter elms create “veined structures of hard life’s breath,” like ghosts or the mourners brought to life by the willows. “Nothing comes back,” the speaker declares, and “a principle of the world is disappearance.” Even a suitcase, symbol of her leaving, becomes hunger, “its mouth open in the dark / drinking distances.”
Millikin resolves her speaker’s searching and loneliness by zooming out and returning to the largeness of her elegy—offering a dirge not only for her own childhood or her family, but for the whole country:
America was always on edge.
It wasn’t just us, seeking home somewhere.
It was everyone, looking for a home
as if America were open, and not stolen.
The overwhelming sense of these poems is of a speaker coming out of the mist, a ghost in her own life, to tell her story and reclaim that life. This proclamation of self is heroic and real, a breaking of the rule of silence, the commandment of the childhood household. Like the little girl in a fairy tale, left without a way back home, Millikin’s heroic speaker mingles with the ghosts, exploring the wilderness as she searches. The denouement of this heroine’s journey is not a return to the house, but rather a return to self.
Jeri Theriault has received 2023 Maine Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship, the 2023 Monson Arts Fellowship, the 2022 NORward Prize, and a 2019 Maine Literary Award. Her poems and reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Texas Review, The Atlanta Review, Plume, and many other journals. Jeri’s poetry collections include Radost, my red and In the Museum of Surrender. In 2021, she edited WAIT: Poems from the Pandemic. She lives in South Portland, Maine.https://www.jeritheriault.com
Millikin’s poetry collection offers a powerful meditation on trauma and ancestral legacy.
The poems collected here evoke forgotten, in-between places; in these verses, the author’s trademark imagery of cold pine forests and dark motel rooms continues to abound. Millikin is a poet preoccupied with the often painful imprint left by family legacy that manifests itself across several generations; in “The Dark Birds,” she observes, “My father was haunted by the wars / in which his father fought….” The speaker continues, “He brought home the bad dreams of war, and I inherit them / through my father….” Abuse is another sickening inheritance, as addressed in the poem “Barbie Doll as Tutelary Spirit for the Too-Early Dead,” in which a father gives his daughter a doll to appease his guilt: “As a small child, you weren’t ready / for your father’s love. / But with the ones who lead you / to death, it is never easy, / touching the beauty of their offerings.” The poet often intertwines memory with natural imagery to render nuances of pain: “my father’s love, that ran too deep, / stung and burned by nettles on descent. / The Romans used nettles to march their soldiers through winter. / Nettles burn the skin creating painful warmth.” While Millikin’s poetry is intensely personal, in poems like “Trailer Parks” it also presents a broader truth: “The abused learned to accept abuse / that’s what I know from my childhood at the outskirts.”
The author has the ability to effortlessly locate complex emotional states. The opening of “Straight Line” advises, “To manage grief, cut your hair each evening.” The poet later goes on to declare that “All those years, I grew my hair longer, / preparing for what I’d have to face” (readers who have spent their lives braced for the worst will relate immediately to Millikin’s shrewd observations). Still, her writing can prove discomforting. There is a deep, artful sorrow in the manner in which the poet captures the passing of time in poems such as “Ocean Closets,” which suggests, “On a day of heavy weather, stay in the house, listen. / Trees stretch their branches into cries. Your child will grow up / leaving behind outgrown pairs of shoes for you to discard.” Elsewhere, the cautionary poem “Outskirts” describes a deplorably rapacious world: “If you are beautiful, they will rape you. / If you are strong, you will carry their burdens.” The poem “Outdoor Parties” observes, “If you don’t talk, no one will know / how strange you are, and they’ll like you / because you’re a pretty girl, with the right make-up. / I used to think it would work, following this advice / of my pastor uncle.” Millikin expresses horror over the idea of other women being manipulated and subjugated by men similar to her uncle; her thorough unpacking of how patriarchy operates is a call for other women to emphatically reject it. This collection demonstrates a profound understanding of suffering and resilience.
Intricate, incisive writing that traces the fallout of the past and righteously rails against abuse.
Maine-based poet Claire Millikin’s haunting new collection, “Elegiaca Americana” (Littoral), sounds like an echo of lament reverberating off the crumbling walls and dusty corners of past inhabitations. There’s an elegant ache to the grimness, a sense, amidst the losses and confusions, that there’s sense to be made, or sense to try to be made of the wreckage. And that sometimes that effort at sense-making is all we can do. “Mother’d say, show off your legs / when I was nine years old, which seems sad to me now, beyond even the usual / sorrow of the late 1970s.” Most of the poems are set in the south, where Millikin grew up. “At the edge of town, a gas station waits. / I could fill up, drive anywhere. / But the violence of southern towns won’t leave me.” There’s the possibility of leaving, but even if you do, the scars stay. Millikin writes of our scarred earth (”one can no longer eat fish from the Oconee, too polluted), scarred skin, scarred soul: hers, her family’s, this country’s. “Try to hold it together, / awaken from the bad / dream of knowledge, America.”
Nina MacLaughlin, “New England Literary News,”
The Boston Globe, October 20th, 2022
The body of literature that examines Francesca Woodman’s photographs has been growing since 1986 when a solo show of her work travelled to several US galleries. Rosalind Krauss, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Peggy Phelan and Mieke Bal, amongst others, have written essays about Woodman’s photographs, and Chris Townsend published a monograph on Woodman’s work which included more than two hundred photographs (Chris Townsend, Francesca Woodman: Scattered in Space and Time, London: Phaidon 2006). While there has been a steady accumulation of critical responses to Woodman’s work since the 1980s, Claire Raymond’s Francesca Woodman and the Kantian Sublime is the first book length work which attends to the complexity of Woodman’s project with the nuance and careful attention that the photographs deserve.
Woodman’s body of work is largely composed of black and white photographs which almost always include representations of herself. Woodman’s photographs were made in the period of her life between age thirteen and twenty-two, the age of her death. Raymond departs from readings of Woodman’s photographs that place emphasis on Woodman’s personal history and her suicide, and that focus on her status as a young photographic genius at the expense of engaging rigorously with her work. As Raymond writes, ‘critical and cultural discomfort with the idea of a female prodigy is the engine that too often drives responses to Woodman’s art’ (13). For readers new to the critical reception of Woodman’s photographs, Raymond’s introduction ‘Geometry of Time’ provides an excellent overview – and critique – of how Woodman’s work has been received and theorised thus far.
Shifting focus from Woodman’s history, her reception as a female prodigy and her position within photographic history (although Raymond does attend to all of these), Raymond offers a refreshing approach to Woodman’s work through an engagement with feminist aesthetics and a revisiting of Immanuel Kant’s sublime. Raymond makes the case – borrowing from Bal’s work on art objects as theory producing – that Woodman’s photographs themselves offer a way of interrogating the Kantian sublime. Rather than simply using Kant’s understanding of the sublime to interpret Woodman’s work, Raymond positions Woodman’s work as generating new ways of thinking about the Kantian sublime. This thinking about, through and with the Kantian sublime is done with careful attention to the question of gender. As such, Francesca Woodman and the Kantian Sublime will be of interest not only to scholars of photography and those already invested in Woodman’s work, but also to those interested in feminist rethinkings of Kant.
Chapter One, ‘Mistresses’, begins by outlining the shared aesthetic between Woodman and nineteenth-century photographers Clementina Hawarden and Julia Margaret Cameron. Engaging with work on photography and the female adolescent body – for example, Carol Mavor’s Becoming (1999) – Raymond teases out the relationship between the (often) maternal gaze of Hawarden’s and Cameron’s photographs and Woodman’s positioning of herself as a ‘femme-enfant’, as a daughter’s body, which effectively implicates ‘the viewer both in the child’s drama of being seen and in the mother’s point of view’ (32). While Raymond is 270 insistent throughout the book on not letting Woodman’s suicide overdetermine readings of her photographs, she does not presume that Woodman’s art must be read as separate from or untouched by her personal history and relationships. For example, Raymond establishes Woodman’s work as part of (and speaking to) a lineage of woman artists who examine the maternal gaze and their own position within a history of woman artists. In doing so, Raymond frames Woodman’s exploration of photography’s ability to ‘flatten’ space as part of a ‘conversation’ with her mother Betty Woodman’s sculpture. She also pays attention to the appearance of Woodman’s grandmother’s objects in Woodman’s artists’ book Some Disordered Interior Geometries (1981) and leaves the reader to consider Woodman’s play with the problematic of feminine inheritance.
Despite the repetitive use of abandoned interiors, a focus on the material structures of buildings and, in the case of the Temple Project (1980), printing on architectural paper, critics have largely sidestepped the question of architectural space and interiors in Woodman’s work. Raymond takes seriously Woodman’s ‘concern with architectonics’ (41), and indeed suggests that ‘[i]t is in that terrain of an architectonic theorization of perception that [. . .] Woodman intervenes’ (4). It is this intervention which brings together Woodman’s attention to ‘interior geometries’ with Kant’s ‘architectonic imagination’ in his theorising of the sublime. This intersection of philosophy, architecture and photography comes together most clearly in Chapter Two, ‘Woodman’s Mirror Is an Enlightenment Mirror’. In this chapter Raymond reads Woodman’s self-portraits as an investigation of the nature of photography, space and perception, rather than as an autobiographical project. As Raymond puts it, ‘‘as she [Woodman] moves in the ruined interiors of postindustrial America or an abandoned factory in Rome, or as she disrobes to take her self-portrait before a bombed and only partially restored ancient Italian church, her figure is the figure of the viewer that ballasts the volatile, fragile architectural frame, and nothing else’’ (60). Rather than reading the appearance of Woodman’s body in her photographs as a statement about Woodman’s self, Raymond focuses our attention on how the artist uses her own body as a device to explore the perception of space in photography.
In Chapter Three, ‘Shaken Sublime’, Raymond maps out the sublime as a ‘fraught aesthetic space,’ (67) and again links Woodman to Cameron, focusing on their use of Venus figures. In this chapter, Raymond’s case that Woodman’s repetitive use of the self-portrait is about seeing – and what happens when you see yourself seeing – comes together. This thread of Raymond’s argument continues through the following chapter ‘Inner Force, or, the Revelatory Body’ where she further explores Woodman’s use of the blurred figure as part of Woodman’s engagement with the conditions of photography, visibility and seeing. In Woodman’s photographs the body’s inner force, referred to in the chapter’s title, is, in Raymond’s words, ‘the capacity to see’ (104).
The following two chapters, ‘Mechanics of Evanescence’ and ‘Among the Ruins: Vertigo, Philobats, and Statues’, include close discussions ofWoodman’s Angel Series and Temple Project. These chapters lead Raymond to conclude, ‘Her [Woodman’s] revelation that photography disorders geometry, disorders time, points not to suicidal themes but rather to the theme of the mortal constraints of perception itself’ (136). Raymond’s emphasis on Woodman’s art as one concerned with the problematic of perception is evidence of Raymond’s concern to interpret Woodman’s photographic project with the seriousness it deserves. If Townsend is eager to remind us that we must always remember that Woodman produced much of her work as a ‘school girl’, a young person who ‘never understood herself as a fully realized artist’ (2006, 6), then Raymond’s book demonstrates the limitations to such an approach to Woodman’s work. Francesca Woodman and the Kantian Sublime is a book that should be valued for opening up possibilities in how we think about Woodman’s work, but also for how we think about selfportraiture, gender, the Kantian sublime and about photography itself.
“This is a crucial book and will garner a wide audience. Its attention to homelessness as literal and figurative phenomena, its articulation of violence and its racial and sexual dimensions and its focus on the discreet image as a portal to larger social and ethical problems is gorgeously rendered”
– Paula Rabinowitz, Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Literature
“This book will strengthen teaching and research within the fields of photography history and modern/contemporary art history. It is a nuanced and intelligent performance that traverses history, theory, and practice as few others have. Quite simply, it is a brilliant book. One we will all be better off for having encountered.”
– Jae Emerling, Professor of Art History, University of North Carolina, Charlotte
“By turns darkly humorous and ruthless, the poems [of Ransom Street] are full of starvation, indictment, and a linguistic-emotional courage that risks taking language as far as it can go toward unconditional illumination”
Into the woods
Poet Claire Millikin lived for years in Owls Head, Maine, and returns there every summer from Virginia, where she teaches at UVA. What other state has a landscape more austere than Maine? And the forest density, the pines that rise, make place for secrets. Her haunting new collection, “Ransom Street ” (2Leaf), captures this austerity, and the shadowed places where things hide. Millikin wrestles here with different kinds of violence and the wounds that last. Hers is a geography of water and woods and skin, and she holds a deep awareness of the weight and weightlessness of words in comparison. “Understand there is nothing/ human inside, no secret self/ beyond this memory of pinewoods/ where no language spoken could leave a shadow,” she writes in “Shadowlands.” We cannot return to what we were, she makes us know: “Build a house of paper, translucent, material scar/ undone with desire/ to be innocent . . . never to have been.”
Claire Millikin’s Ransom Street opens with “Atlantic,” which both warns the reader to be wary of the poetry that follows, and channels these poems as a means to construct memory-spaces: “I will go out / in my boat of language / because voice is not only a wound / but also a craft.” Indeed, “Atlantic,”—a prize winner, and one of the collection’s best pieces—helps create the rhythm of Millikin’s poems. As she captures the waves “edging back and forth,” so too does the narrative edge back and forth into the haunts of the poetic voice.
Ransom Street is, as its title suggests, concerned with the process of taking and holding for ransom. Each poem capitalizes on the experience of delayed payment; trauma or suffering occurring at one moment must be reimbursed or reckoned with sometime later. A child’s youth is taken as ransom—her experiences become part of the gritty economy that encompasses farmlands, depressed cityscapes, and decaying houses. The taking and payment of ransom is graphed into this geography, with Millikin’s poems becoming meditations on the vestigial traces of ransom that cannot be reconciled, trapped in the places of these experiences.
Spectres linger in the poems of Ransom Street—these spectres may be the amorphous forms of men playing chess in “Table Laid for an Evening Meal,” the ubiquitous forces of the economy and the weather—surrounding and chafing the figures of these poems—or the more realized glimpses of the poetic voice in the past. These spectres become emblems, not of the current but of memory, housed in the architecture of the collection. “Space is curved / in a house without sleep,” notes the poem “Anamorphosis,” the “curved” nature of space becoming a motif—and source of inspiration—for the rest of the poem. Yet the curvature of space is pertinent to the creation—the “craft”—of the collection as a whole. The titular “Ransom Street,” the “Hallways,” and the “Strip Mall” continually draw attention to the construction of space. The “craft” of poetry becomes a diorama, through which the reader explores the spaces, the buildings, the rooms, and the places in between, which Millikin lays out and builds with her collection.
The construction of physical space offers narrative space for self-reflection. Many of the poems have a confessional air. I say “confessional” not as a (denigrating) term to express the poems’ similarities to the works of Plath or Berryman—they aren’t very similar; rather, as the poems construct space and explore architecture, so too does the “confessional” represent an eponymous religious space. The poems become a space of narrative telling and retelling as a purifying process: “space is curved,” to house a confessing subject. As the speaker reminds, in “Anamorphosis,” “I’m still her girl,” the creation of the house—the space, the confessional—allowing the speaker to explore the subjectivity of herself as a child, a “girl.” The confessions becoming the confessions of memory.
Where architecture and the confessional box create a space for the speaker to speak, physical objects mark a movement into the past. The title object in “Coat History,” for example, recalls the experience of harsh winters, generational endowments, and the memory of the fabric itself. As each object triggers memories, new spaces—or lack thereof—unfold. Often, as the coat creates the image of “a half-starved girl,” it is the latter. The memories explored in Ransom Street are traumatic—the “half-starved girl,” points to the poverty and homelessness remembered by this speaker, and the speakers of Millikin’s other poems. Thus, the construction of the house in the present—the confessional space for the speaker’s memories—becomes essential in relief of the stark past. Each object, from boxes to frozen food, is immensely important, no matter how innocuous, as a consequence of scarcity.
Of course, the confessional as a religious space is explicitly explored throughout the poems as well. The mundane objects that trigger memory are juxtaposed with the sacred, or, as one poem’s title suggests, the “Holy, Unholy.” Saints, reflections on coming to religion, and the celebration of Christmas become subjects throughout the collection. The most interesting pieces on religion—and confession—however, are a series of poems on “Atonement.” The sustained look at atoning for one’s past—traveling into the memories of the poetic voice—through the voice of a “half-starved girl,” comes to highlight the immense pressure of wanting to find sacredness in the midst of the profane and hardship. In “Atonement: Priest,” which stands out among this series of poems, Millikin draws on the experience of religion through multiple subjects. The poem opens, “I touch the bread that becomes flesh,” pointing to an experience of religion belonging to a the speaker-as-a-child—the meaning of the bread becoming the body of Christ becomes a literal, visceral transfiguration felt in the “touch” of the speaker. Yet, much like the coat before it, the “black hat,” the speaker wears triggers further memory. This memory becomes inherited, not experienced by the speaker herself:
[…] wearing even the black hat
of rain and time, as did the old priest
on Lesvos, walking in an alley with grieving women, the island shining
where my mother is still a girl, pure of the knowledge of men.
The hat—the object—allows the speaker to slip into the memory of the old priest, and explore a temporal space of unified gender. The memory is of “the place before [the speaker’s] birth,” as her own mother is still a child, again recalling the speaker’s interest in herself as a child. The innocence of the mother—before she meets the father—is a pre-lapsarian innocence. On Lesvos—an allusion to the inheritance of verse from Sappho—the mother is “pure of the knowledge of men.”
The language within these poems can at times be obvious or reaching. In “Orphan Afternoon,” Millikan’s notes that she and “two other kids” where “[j]ust like school children—released / for an afternoon from juvenile / corrections into the eternal world.” Here, the image is almost clear—the freedom of the speaker is compared to the freedom of the children in a juvenile corrections facility, but by invoking the “eternal world,” the image falters. No longer are the speaker and the other children tasting freedom, but they are embarking on something else—a choice that seems both too simple, and inaccessible to the reader. Yet, as the poems offer space to explore the psychologies of these speakers—and with it, a space to explore history, class, and gender—the challenges of the language become part of the poetry’s architecture.
Towards the end of the collection is “Cardboard Houses,” a poem that centers the interest in the dioramic construction of space. The speaker notes that she “got a cardboard house, for Christmas / age eight. A photograph / left in a shoebox proves it,” and goes on to describe the cardboard house’s ornamentations, “painted and squared / to mimic Georgian architecture.” The aesthetic construction of the cardboard house comes to mimic the construction of space within the poems. Where the house is painted and decorated to look like a pleasant Georgian house, it is still obviously cardboard, much like the language—and indeed the faultiness of language—is an approximation of memory. Yet, this cardboard house has bite. The cardboard house serves as a vessel for painful recollection: “and women like me, often enough, / end up in cardboard houses, sleeping rough.” Where the couplet here again draws attention to the conspicuous language, the cardboard itself—the material of assembling the house and the dioramas—is central to the poem’s edge.
A diorama, like the cardboard house, is typically made of materials other than what is meant to be represented. An interior of a house, for example, may be made into a shoebox or a cigar box. Furniture can be made from plastic, wire, or paper cut-outs. It is the illusion of the diorama that creates the sense of a miniature world—real people, real furniture, real clothing. While the language, at times, is banal, where the dioramic poems in Ransom Street succeed is in the creation and showcasing of this illusion, pulling the reader into the speaker’s memories and showing how the physical space is constructed. The illusion is always juxtaposed with the reality. A beautiful Georgian house is placed next to a cardboard box, a half-starved young girl having crawled inside:
[…] between foyer and former dining parlor.
The cardboard house shaped a hollow
high and wide enough for a child
of forty pounds and forty-eight inches.
Sam Wilcox is a senior in Columbia College majoring in English. He is the current Managing Editor of The Columbia Review.
“The Geography of Losing and Getting Lost.” This poet was held prisoner as a young person; the soul, poetry says, cannot be held captive.
Hotel Room Atonement
I never tell anyone about my father, a limit
where the photograph folds
toward God. In backyard super 8,
my baby sister dances naked,
wet leaves stick to her skin.
I never tell the truth about myself; thus,
in bad dreams, the stone cutters by the highway
turn their heads
and the old women say,
it was bound to happen.
Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s 10th poet laureate. She founded and produces “The Poet and the Poem” from the Library of Congress for public radio. Her new book of poems is Showboat (Goss Publications, 2019).
Millikin’s latest set of poems tackles difficult material in language that moves from the
complex to the simple.
The past lives as a sequence of shadows and memories, leaving poets to put it into words. As the author writes in the opening poem, “Atlantic,” “I will go out / in my boat of language / because voice is not only a wound / but also a craft.” These poems reckon with landscapes, streets, and objects that are haunted by trauma and tragedy. “Pretty Dresses,” for example, ends on the image of one such item: “Traveling back roads into Georgia, we’d stop / where no one much lived, gas pumps by cinderblock / and cotton fields, me wearing grandfather’s jacket from the war.” The book mixes gritty, real-world imagery with dreamlike contrasts. One work, for instance, describes a rural taxi service and the philosophical feud between Friedrich Hölderlin and Martin Heidegger; another is about playing the Chinese board game Go as a way to survive a winter. Familiar themes of abandonment, isolation, and betrayal are all here, but they’re twisted into strange, melancholic songs of pine woods, railroad tracks, and old hotels. Along the way, Millikin tosses in erudite allusions to give mythic weight to memories: “As night is shaped of boxes, (Archimedean squares), / my grandfather built flimsy houses. / The nature of boxes is to be built of sky, / a supply from which my grandfather drew indiscriminately.” The long collection has a deeply immersive quality; the poems feel simultaneously confessional and guarded, and they offer different lessons than readers may expect at the outset. There’s also a cyclical quality to them, as in “As Snow Closes in the City”: “She is reading a story aloud in the bar / and you’re sure you’ve heard it before. / Snow closing the ways between buildings, / alleys, inlets, quays to harbor.”
A mournful, elegant collection that explores what one owes to the past.
“Claire Millikin’s lines condense paradoxical and painful experience into glittering musical constellations—an expressionist torrent, informed by a neoclassical taste for symmetry and keen closure. Defying all jurisdiction, her lyrics evade their own meticulous borders, and reach with astonishing poignance into a zone of pure, lancing attestation: the Cassandra-clarity of soulful witness.”
In “Shadow Play,” one of the many extraordinary poems in Tartessos and Other Cities, Claire Millikin outlines where we are going in this book. “We will go down,” she writes, “into the slant light of our souls,” and we will see “under the dirt horizon, solum, / this stain of time, sima, shadow.” Lines as strong and deft as these call out for more than a moment of the reader’s thoughts and feelings in response. One thinks for instance of Emily Dickinson’s slant of light, the one that oppresses us with heavenly hurt and makes a difference down deep where the meanings are, how the landscape holds its breath when it arrives, and how when it leaves that light is like the distance—the pure otherness—in the open eyes of the dead. One thinks also of the other kinds of literary journeys into the under-earth, Dante’s journey into the pit of hell for instance. One thinks also of the beachside pit Odysseus digs, the way he performs his rituals and thereby opens an aperture in which he can witness the dead come forth to speak with him.
And beyond literary antecedents, one senses in these lines and this book as a whole an ongoing and relentless descent into the deepest parts of mind. We are going to go below every consoling and seemingly stable surface we know. We are going to probe beyond the “dirt horizon” and into those strange layers of being that are connoted by those interesting geological words “solum” and “sima.” We are indeed going on a journey into the shadow land of being, where the specimens we find will need if we are to be at all precise, some words we’ve hardly have ever used. The past will not be so much a foreign country, but a myth of a lost city, that if we search as long and hard as these poems do, will prove to be true, perhaps worse or more unbearable than we can allow ourselves to remember, but real nonetheless. Something like the city of Tartessos, once thought to be merely a mythical trading port on the Guadalquivir River in Andalusia, a city that more recent excavations have shown to actually exist. As Millikin says in her opening note: this is a book of poems about losing cities, and how losing them turns out to be a way of re-discovering and recovering them as real.
But what are those “other cities”? There are some cities of the poet’s adulthood, the places in which she wanders, works, loves, has children of our her own. But then there is another city she carries within. To call it the city of childhood is to make it sound too innocent. It is more accurately called the city of childhood trauma, of what seems or feels like father-daughter sexual abuse. I say “seems or feels” not to dodge the question, but to give a sense of the way these poems glance off this subject, how the sexual abuse appears and disappears, how it need not be the central or the most visible “event” of a given poem, but like that slant of light nonetheless colors and shades everything it touches.\
I also want to say that this book does not compose itself into a clinical study in verse, nor is it simply a victim’s complaint. Without a doubt there is a deep, barely speakable wound, an atrocity and the recoil from atrocity driving these poems. The reader senses the deepest bonds of trust have been violated early on. And one feels the terrible never-ending present-tense of the wound, the way the memory of it is always fresh, and ready to intrude. But there is something more at work in these poems than the dialectic and dynamics of trauma, something that perhaps artistic practice alone is able to accomplish.
Seamus Heaney in his essay “The Redress of Poetry,” argued for the value of poetry that responds to the unacceptable and horrific aspects of experience. He said that if our experience is at times a labyrinth, “its impassability can still be countered by the poet’s imagining some equivalent of the labyrinth and presenting himself and us with a vivid experience of it.” That constructed image of the experiential labyrinth thereby offers the mind a chance to, in Heaney’s words, “to recognize its predicaments, foreknow its capacities, and rehearse its comebacks.” Something on that order is what Claire Millikin offers us in these poems. There is at times a maze-like feel to the book, and to feel lost in a maze can be as fearsome as it is bewildering. But throughout this book, you’ll find there is also a deep and abiding desire to map the terrain. The poet wants to find her way through the maze, and in the process, she takes us with her, giving us some emotional and spiritual coordinates to help us in our own labyrinths. In “Map of the Night,” Millikin tells us
a map is an internal thing
written in the mind, where it must be
to find the way, because dusk in winter blurs
so far you cannot see.
A map alone does not solve our problems, heal our wounds, or save our souls. But it gives us a chance to find our way, and that is the deepest, most humane lesson in this wise, artful, and deeply moving collection of poems.
“In this remarkable collection, Claire Millikin has made her own persistent music of a fully felt, fully experienced life in which ‘what’s broken never heals completely.’ Often edging into what seems unspeakable, she finds a language that remains plain, steady, scrupulous, unsentimental and unshowy. Poem after poem registers the poet’s ‘battle for the moral world’—illuminating not only a single life but its human and environmental surroundings. As a motif draws us to the heart of a piece of music, Millikin’s recurrent emblem is the centering fact and force of television: its role—fractured, phantasmagoric and familiar—in home and family, and in the wider world, where it may exercise its ‘balm of blue light.’ What I find especially admirable is how these poems offer such a palpable and persuasive sense of a rich—if sometimes thwarted—inner life pushing its own boundaries of perception into the luminous and illuminating zones of the articulate. Always deeply reflective, the poems look inward and outward at once, allowing us to see and sympathise with the kinetic activity of a consciousness grasping—in every sense—the world that is shaping it. It can be a world of hunger, tattered clothes, rusted chassis, bewildering motion, ‘parking lots smeared with ice,’ a world in which the child, the growing poet, has ‘no house but this watchfulness.’ But in this watchfulness she abides and makes stubborn and dignified sense. Confronting in her own way ‘time that swallows all things,’ she asks ‘How shall I build myself from words.’ Well, in TELEVISION, she, simply, has.”
Article Excerpt: A lecturer in art history and sociology at the University of Virginia, Claire Raymond has produced a nuanced study that relates Flannery O’Connor to the scholarly investigation of trauma. Raymond’s book is fascinating, in part because it does not derive directly from literary studies. It raises questions that will intrigue scholars of southern studies for quite some time.
Raymond has some interesting ideas about sadistic torture and about its artistic representation. To a large extent, Raymond believes, acts of sadism are performed (usually by a man) to impress a witness (usually a woman), in order to prove to the witness that the witness is powerless. Raymond also asserts that the powerless witness may profit from the sadism and even come to identify with the torturer. In art, the witness figure may be a character within the artwork, or the audience for the artwork, or the author. There is plenty in this book to make one uneasy, more aware of how art might do the wrong thing.
Raymond seems not to care much about O’Connor’s novels, even as she refers to O’Connor’s “first” novel, The Violent Bear It Away, as an indication of O’Connor’s “role as proprietress of holy murder and sacred destruction” (133). Raymond provides perceptive interpretations of “A View of the Woods,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” In general, Raymond’s response to O’Connor’s work does not emphasize a religious reading, although her response to O’Connor is not incompatible with religious readings. When Raymond discusses René Girard and his Violence and the Sacred, her intention is not to reject Girard’s approach but to expand the applicability of his approach. Raymond also intelligently discusses other texts by several southern women writers that one would expect to see in a book with this title-notably McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Café, Hurston’s Mules and Men, and Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. I must admit that, for me, the most interesting parts of this book are the discussions that demonstrate how the sadism of American slavery haunts all of American art. We see ways in which O’Connor might be considered alongside other writers usually considered outside the popular “southern woman writer” category. Yes, the key is race; and the issues of the purity of Mary Fortune Pitts’s blood and of how The Misfit embodies “the other side, or true face, of white Southern chivalry” (140) lead us to see the sadism of slavery as the background for much of O’Connor’s work.
The most surprising choice of author for a book about southern texts is Emily Dickinson. She belongs in this study, Raymond says, because the southern agrarians appreciated her for her ability to examine violence as it relates to race. More surprisingly, Raymond asserts that the agrarians were intrigued to think that Dickinson “did not agitate against violence” (113). They liked that “What Dickinson asks of her violent poems is that they freeze the reader” (115). Raymond appreciates Dickinson and exonerates her morality, but Raymond also suggests that Dickinson’s place in the canon may have something to do with a debatable reading that was given her complex work.
That Raymond was born in Georgia may explain her interest in southern writers, but she also includes artists from well outside the South. For example, Carrie Mae Weems, an artist born in Portland, Oregon, is examined at length, especially for her recent photographic series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried. In this series, Weems presents, “re-photographed and significantly altered-tinting, cropping, framing, and inscribing with verbal text” (33-34), a set of daguerreotypes originally “taken as part of a mid-nineteenth-century anthropological study in which enslaved father-daughter pairs were photographed . …
The feminist aesthetic is predicated on photographs that “carry the ethics of the feminist movement through formal contour and symbolic figure.” In developing this concept, art historian Claire Raymond considers work from twenty-two female photographers. Her book covers multiple continents and three centuries, offering critical assessments and new sociopolitical interpretations of artists such as Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, and Carrie Mae Weems.