When my grandmother fell through
the floorboards, she cupped her hands
to create an echo that crosses
five acres of cows, and they don’t know how
to listen. Cows don’t know how to move
closer in open fields. They need
whispers in their ears. Branding irons
or cracked whips taught them
how pain sounds—a bellow
from the fourth stomach. When her throat
dried, she settled for listening.
What she heard before having a body:
the rumbling of dirt, shuffling
of the many-headed rush,
a voice calling I’m sorry over
the cows’ shuffling weight.
Winner of The 2017 Orison Poetry Prize, as selected by Carl Phillips, is New York poet and editor Carly Joy Miller’s full-length debut, the poetry title Ceremonial (Asheville NC: Orison Books, 2018). The collection opens with a glowing introduction by Ilya Kaminsky, that includes:
Carly Joy Miller often begins her poems with the seduction of tone: she is playful and ruinous at the same time. “I have always been the girl in the wrong / clothes for spring,” she starts the poem, in a matter-of-fact tone. “Last week I hunted the blond boys / who hunted a doe.” That catches the eye. But what follows is working on a much deeper, stranger register: “I let out a dry cry. / Only the worms could hear me. / I’ve been that low.” What a curious marriage of O’Hara and Plath! And Amy Gerstler! And the Witches’ words in Macbeth!
I was struck by many of the poems in this collection, but there were times that I wanted more from some of them; times I felt that the poems didn’t go far enough, such as the poem “Letter to Body Made Breath,” which ended on a short sequence that left me feeling short-changed: “Dress billow-whips // my knees. Breathe.: / body arch. Breathe.” In a way, my frustration from such small moments come from seeing just how capable Miller’s work is, and how much better a poet she is, and could be. On the whole, this collection is sharp, wickedly smart and playfully confident, and the variety of structures she plays with, utilizing shifts in line breaks, rhythm and even prose structures, throughout the collection made up for any shortfalls I might be imagining. Her poems are restless, moving through myth and mantra, fable and consequence, seeking out the closest thing to truth that might be possible. Perhaps I make too much of a small thing? As the last quarter of the poem “Fable” reads:
Cry one tear is she is quick enough
to wipe it away. It could freeze on her cheek
and she doesn’t need a mark for loss
visible on her face. The sun fell. She thought
of a swan tucking beak into wing. That’s
what all days must be like. All fall gracefully.
She was mistaken. If she’d just looked up
she could have saved him. Someone else
will find him. Someone else will drag him home.