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Poet's Corner

June 05, 2005|Carol Muske-Dukes

A Palace of Pearls

Jane Miller

Copper Canyon Press: 62 pp.,

$15 paper

Jane Miller is one of those poets not always on the radar screen: She has never been a self-promoter or a spotlighter, and she works in relative isolation. Yet she writes, book by book, some of the oddest, finest, most brilliantly surprising poems being published.

"A Palace of Pearls" is a sequence of poems that unfolds and flows like dreams. The dreamscape is a medieval Arab kingdom, Al-Andalus -- a kind of utopia of collaboration among scholars and artists -- and a tenuous model of religious harmony among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

At the center of these dreaming poems is the Alhambra, the great fortress-palace, through which Miller conducts a Dante-like guided tour. Federico Garcia Lorca hovers always in the background, sometimes in the foreground. His "presence" reminds the reader of his magical poetic education. Lorca grew up hearing Moorish tales during his childhood in Andalusia, and his legendary wedding of the traditional and the new lights a path for Miller to follow.

Miller raises a torch and casts Lorca's shadow on the wall, yet still follows her own unconventional imagery, her own way in and out of darkness -- through the streets of 15th century Spain, through myths of Greek, Judaic and Roman origin, out into the labyrinth of contemporary American politics. Her voice is always personal and ruminative:

Wherever they fell their bodies

were buried

the custom was to sit down

to one's drink

of an evening which was often

incomplete

without a fight or a visit

to a brothel

one can still see a girl astride

a customer ...

more likely than not she was

a slave ...

The reader trusts this voice, these unusual poems rendered in long, jagged lines. A page often ends with an unanchored observation in capital letters, giving the collection's cumulative progression an aura of Sufic script -- or of a Koran recitation (Koran means "recitation" in Arabic).

Miller is now eight books into sustained ecstatic insight -- an imagination adrift in associative, sophisticated bliss. It's nothing less than revelatory to be spun in her breakers -- we're both out of our depth and at play in the bright shallows -- till (forgive me) "human voices wake us and we drown."

*

Honey and Junk

Dana Goodyear

W.W. Norton: 72 pp., $23.95

The element of surprise is strong as well in the debut volume "Honey and Junk" by Dana Goodyear. These poems are intensely indicative, leaving much unsaid. Still, as poem-discourses go, Goodyear's covers serious ground in very little space, a seeming contradiction -- as is her smart and traditional sense of rhyme, tucked into non sequitur:

A woman, pregnant

like a red wool bud,

is circling the rink.

Catastrophe, I think.

Or from a poem called "Raised by Aliens":

Mother's vacuuming, a black

hole, knowing

nothing happens here. Her

eyeshadow a gibbous moon.

In an Astro I become a

flickering defibrillator

storm.

Father in his glowing mask. He

was forty, I was born.

The poems retain a mysterious quality that is remarkable, intensified by a natural authority of tone. This mysterious tone alternates between playful offhandedness and sudden shifts into grief. There is fearful darkness here, but it is kept at a distance from everything that is illuminated, lit up by contrast. Still, something shadows even the funny poems -- the silhouette of a broken world and sorrow kept at bay.

Goodyear is a deft and graceful poet: Those qualities are everywhere in evidence in "Honey and Junk." The contrast of sweet gold memories and "throwaway" culture ("Nothing gold can stay") lends dramatic tension to the riddle of our lives:

The little silver fish are

licking us.

They are the nearest edges

of what we have not

grasped.

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