Leslie Adrienne Miller’s Y is difficult: dense with image, crowded with sound, a book that is willing to puzzle over a lifetime of mysteries, regardless of size. “Voracious” best describes the attention underpinning the collection, as it gobbles up everything from Roget to Rukeyser, feral children to Elmer Fudd. A full fifth of the poems are centos, collaged from bewildering sources. If Y appeared as a question on a multiple-choice test, the answer would be “all of the above.” Still, the choices Miller makes are not haphazard; they are instead brutally calculating.
Falling somewhere between listicle and Dinggedicht, the title poem is all a-clutter with variables that elbow each other from line to line:
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
in theory. On y va. Let’s go There.
Dizzy yet? The poem continues to unspool possibilities that swing on a conditional hinge. Everything in this poem “might” happen “in theory,” or “if” “all the starry anomalies” align—it’s sometimes difficult to be sure of anything in one of Miller’s poems. But halfway through the speaker gathers all of those “arrows reversed in wind” and aims them dead at the book’s bullseye:
frizzy blot of genetic code directing the symphony
of a trillion sperm, a single Y . . . might fold over,
and then accidentally delete everything
that lies between.
For Miller, the body is a site of potential: it can conjoin and dissolve, tie and unravel, quell or quarrel. The poems in this collection evince a need to catalog the possibilities of bodies, to seek solutions that are too often elusive. The Y then, for Miller, is both chromosome and question.
Miller takes a risk with her need to say something very important, but the result is poetry that both intellectually rigorous and just flat-out beautiful. In one poem, she sketches men who “make love like gulls / riding the ordinary gift of wind,” and in another, taxi cabs “swim down Park like an army of beetles.” In a Paris restaurant, she describes “wine stitching bouquets / into the white napkins cast in our laps.” At a pee-wee hockey game, the young players “all adore / the rush to punch a cuneiform of dents / against the boards.” Some of the book’s best moments are when Miller allows the poems to be completely drunk with language: “Are these tunnels / and chambers not gorgeous in their reach, echo / of an aria the snail scooting its soft curl inward / will perform in the empty gallery of the skull.” And if none of those examples are convincing, you should read Y at least for the first (I think) use of “nut cup” in American poetry.
Readers of Miller’s previous book, The Resurrection Trade, may remember how visceral and pained her poems can be. The poems in Y are just as wounded, and spare no one. At a parent-teacher conference, the grown-ups are taught “two new ways / to play war with an ordinary deck of cards.” When asked what they like most about the circus, a horde of young boys “do not have to think to find the thrill, / The shooting!” The body, too, betrays itself, apologizing for “the stone I wedged / in your breast, for the arches / I collapsed and the spine I bent / like a hanger.” Moms too: “when the phrase rolls towards the precipice / of my tongue—my mother my mother my mother— / I can still kill it.” For Miller, sentences are “torture chambers.” Even the ocean is a “long gash of turquoise.” And then there’s this:
were you to appear
in the garden at this moment as threat
to that boy body scooped from my own,
I too would wear such a face,
and I’d be aiming to kill.
These poems so riddled with pain are among Miller’s best in Y. They are proof of a vulnerability that was often lacking in the previous collection. There, violence against the body was often at arm’s length—filtered by the collection’s ekphrastic framing and/or the cool remove of history. More often in Y, Miller strips away the pretense of the poetic, settling instead for an immediate, concussive tone that echoes like a rifle shot long after you turn the page:
We’re all shooting with our own ratchet of joy. They’ll kill us
with cuteness while we kill them with slippage,
allowing, for once, the little insurgencies of marshmallows
in lunch’s stead, sleeping in bags, peeing on trees.
We thrill to each rule we break.
In the previous collection, ekphrasis allowed Miller to explore the appropriation and objectification of the female body. Again, Y brings this project closer. Instead of questioning these appropriations through the mezzotint of history, what we see in Y is much more immediate:
The mirror forces everyone to watch
her own fierce visage, beet stain soaking
the row of cheeks until we all match the fat,
red valentine bulging in its glass box,
ready to shock us back to life. Like it or not,
all of us allow the subconscious film
to filter up through the fluorescent lights,
the dream of a serious, precise and much
bemuscled man not flailing but flying
through the long strands of our collective ache.
—From “Écorchés Redux”
Compare these to the previous collection’s “Gautier D’Agoty’s Écorchés”:
Whoever they were, they’re still with us,
posing demurely in suits of blood
and muscle, the bruised shadows
of what skin they do have, purpling like
crushed petunias as they spread their legs
and raise their meaty arms to show
dissected breasts, unfinished infants, sundry
viscera on the ground about their feet
There are a number of parallels: the digressive syntax, the acoustical overlap, and the re-re-appropriation of the female body as subject (all of which appear regularly in Miller’s work). It may be tempting to dismiss the new work as mere regurgitation, the same poem with new set dressing (and “Redux” isn’t the only poem in the collection that treads familiar ground). But we should consider instead the poems in Y as iterative, the poet’s opportunity to reframe answers that were (or are now) insufficient. Better I think to find in them a Bishop-like recursion, or maybe Rilke’s Malte: “Now I am learning to see.” In doing so we too will see an inquisitive, hungry mind constantly seeking.
The poems in Y artfully blur subject and observer until there is only a hazy equals sign between. The answers found in this collection are slippery, chimerical. Miller will torque the poems so hard at times that whatever meaning we find there is forever, well, you know. But this book depends on deferral; it is driven by collage, accumulation, negation. It is engineered to resist categorization. As Miller knows, our lives are full of variables, and whatever answers we arrive at are at best conditional. Never formulaic, Miller’s latest is full of stunningly well-crafted propositions, theorems, and equations. Fitting then, that she leaves it up to the reader to solve for why.