What are all the things the letter Y could be? Leslie Adrienne Miller implicitly ponders that question in the opening poem of her collection:
Perhaps it’s a thread that needs to be pulled,
a single stitch caught in the crux.
Whole word in French and Spanish,
vertical axis of Cartesian three
loaning its fragile branch to a boy
Above all, in these poems, the letter Y signifies the chromosomal difference between male and female, what Miller describes as a:
frizzy blot of genetic code directing the symphony
of a trillion sperm
Those chromosomes become the boys who lurk through Miller’s collection. Many of the poems interrogate the relationship between grown women and young boys, often mothers and sons. But these are not sweet poems celebrating maternity. In a poem called “Lucifer Effect,” a boy hides from his caretaker as she tries to lure him indoors with a root beer popsicle. Miller writes:
Crouched in a shrub, he waits
for the moment to unfurl its enormous flock
of risks, only to wheel back and settle again.
He waits until her smile begins to slide, until
the inevitable stumble, and there it is –
tingle of dark cause, sensation ajar,
rippling along his scalp.
Listen to the cadence of “unfurl its enormous flock” and “until / the inevitable stumble.” Like the devilish boy pushes the limits of his world, Miller pushes language nearly to its breaking point, both in structure and in sense. She maximizes the drama of enjambment – how one line falls into another – and she relishes the sonic quality of words.
Another investigation that spans her collection is the tenuous link between physicality and language, between words and bodies, between bodies and minds. Everywhere in these poems these borders break down, and the realms invade each other in a battle against what she calls, in the poem “Vestigial,” “the mind’s brutal appetite for dichotomy” (39). The title of that poem – vestigial – refers to another of the books’s boys, who, under a woman’s watching eye, is yet to fall prey to that appetite for clear-cut categories, who is, according to the poem, “still in the realm / of the mutable” (39).
Once we are fully grown, irrationality becomes a threat from within. Such is the case in the poem “Phrased by Wolves,” where the narrator feels the words my mother on the verge of bursting, uncontrollably, from her mouth at inconvenient times. At a cocktail party. The phrase is, as the narrator realizes, a “place / keeper, cognitive stutter, cosmic comma” (34). But does it mean anything? Is it an unconscious sign of unresolved issues with her actual mother, or only a meaningless twitch of neurons? The narrator argues for the twitch, imagining the phrase as natural force that will, one day, Miller writes, “simply gush, my mother / my mother, like some warm and shocking / bodily fluid over the tongue’s warm threshold” (34). Even the pun in the poem’s title, “Phrased by Wolves,” suggests the raw material power of words.
Miller produces another variation on the theme of words and bodies late in the collection, in one of the many fragmentary pieces she calls “adversaria.” Each of these includes a handful of sentences that she’s plucked from a highly-specialized discourse, like genetics, or French history. They employ a poetic technique called parataxis, which is the pairing, one after the other, of what seem like unrelated thoughts. In this late adversaria, Miller quotes, “We lived in a bell that rang all day,” which doesn’t seem to have much to do with the next sentence: “The syllable may have evolved as a by-product of the alternate raising (consonant) and lowering (vowel) of the mandible, a behavior already well-established for chewing, sucking, and licking” (83). What belongs to our body, and what to our mind?
The book is full of hints and clues, ever pressing us toward an illuminating insight that will, quick as lightning, return us to our darkness. Though it also encourages us to feel, somewhere in our inner organs, that brief, bass rumble that follows the lightning – the dark, even hellish, rumble of thunder.