The Limits, Alice Miller (Auckland University Press, 2014)
Alice Miller, an award-winning author, has just published her debut poetry collection both in New Zealand (Auckland University Press) and in Britain (Shearsman, due May). Alice’s awards indicate the eclectic stretch of her writing: a Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson Bursary, the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Premier Award for Fiction, the Landfall Essay Prize and the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize. She was the Glenn Schaeffer Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and graduated from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University with an MA with Distinction. Alice has also worked as an historian, studied music and taught creative writing. She held the recent Summer Residency at the Michael King Writer’s Centre in Auckland. She usually lives in Vienna where she is Associate Editor of The Vienna Review.
The Limits is a slender volume (37 poems) with widespread possibilities. The poems are quiet, spare and luminous. Each poem is like a marvellous vista—it is as though you keep returning to the same spot on a hill to contemplate a view because that view is in a glorious state of flux. Always on the move, sustaining, transcendental. This is what it is like to read an Alice Miller poem.
The poems sit in mist or silence or enigma, or puzzling and then rewarding fragments. This is not prosaic writing, the plain everyday lilt we find in much of our local poetry (nothing wrong with that!). If there is a story to be told, it is told in a poetic manner (but not ornate lines that strive for the Romantic or the Baroque). If there is a story to be told, it is told though the poetic art of concealment, of ellipsis: the white space on the page, the silent beat in the rhythm and the fertility of the gap. This shifts the manner of reading—no ambulatory beat here. Instead, as reader, you stall and you ponder, you concentrate and you backtrack. Most of all, and this is what I love about these poems, you drift in the poetic space, feeding both intellect and heart.
Alice also embraces the abstract. As you move through a poem, it is as though you are moving through the surreal, the unreal, the unearthy, a dreaminess that is one step back from the grit and grimy edge of the real, of everyday life with its bumps and hollows. Yet Alice does something extraordinary—she gives life to the philosophical, the dreamlike, the mist beyond limits and within limits. Enigmatic detail compounds. Things may be things and nothing more or they may shimmer and shine as metaphor or symbol.
The collection is divided into four parts: Skin, Steps, Earth, Body. It is fascinating to link these governing entities back to the title of the book; the way there are borders (inside/outside, corporeal/heavenly, containment/limitlessness), the way there is implicit movement and travel (the earth on its axis, the steps) and the way all roads lead back to what it is to be human (are there limits?).
Sometimes single lines leap out and then you leap with them:
‘Still the spaces keep growling for something.’
‘I may wander but my wonder’s still.’
‘You’ll always have life instead of art.
‘Tonight a scrunch of air between fingers/ what more do you expect?’
‘You are locked/ in the wing/ of history/ with blood still/ stuck in your veins.’
‘I look out, and the terms are still sloshing/ by our window, past cobwebs nestled/ in hedges like fog.’
‘I fashion some antlers/ to guard my brain.’
Alice’s poems are so beautifully crafted. ‘Apple’ is an earthquake poem and it is the strand of verbs that constitute a shudder and aching ripple through the poem (cracked, reaching, brush, crane, caress, wrench, rip, split, shudder, broke, tore). These verbs create a moving ripple effect through the poem that heightens the intensity and is matched by the shifting placement of lines upon the page. To me Alice’s poetic choices get to some kind of poetic essence (is this possible?) and then breaks out visually, semantically, emotionally to wider effect.
At times the syntax and vocabulary are fluent and reachable; at other times they seem deliciously out-of-kilter, quirky even. ‘In Season’ is a superb example of the latter. There are the trademark gaps, the points of ellipses, the dense accumulation of detail. It might be an unexpected verb choice: (‘Listen to waves mutter/ as sun butters the water’ or ‘A couple/ of boots stroke the road’). The overall effect, in my view, is a finely crafted stream-of-consciousness (yes, an oxymoron).
There are other ways to enter these poems. You can follow the deeply grooved tracks of love (poems are often addressed to a mysterious ‘you’ and the love felt is palpable). You can also follow in the steps of the historian and re-enter historical or mythical moments and figures (Troy, Caesar, Rome’s Senate, war, Brahms, Picasso).
Alice’s debut collection liberates a way of reading that defies limits, that poses limits and that makes dazzling connections. Each poem takes you to the top of the hill where you sit to behold the view, a view that shifts and settles, shifts and settles, in countless extraordinary ways.
See my interview with Alice here.
Alice Miller website
Auckland University Press page
Shearsman UK page
On Antarctica on New Zealand Book Council page
Alice Miller’s poetry duets — The Red Room page