Autobiomythography & Gallery

by Joe Millar
Brooklyn Arts Press 2007
Reviewed by Matt Soucy


Insiduous: Minatory Bull, Fiddler Crab
millar cover

Joe Millar’s Autobiomythography & Gallery is the best new book of poetry read by this reviewer this year.  It is incredibly strong.  Millar does not feel the need to jab the reader with poetic points or punch-lines; his poems thrive on ambiguity, intellect and the poignancy of images we half-understand.

The “Autobiomythography” section starts with a tone somewhere between Ben Lerner and Allen Ginsberg.  The first poem, “What is Given,” attacks the very strangeness of being alive.  The action of a car accident is nature’s “form of subtraction,” but when the driver discovers himself oddly alive, “that is a given.” 

From a first poem with that strength and lack of apology, Millar moves directly to “Autobiomythography.”  The titular poem is both beautiful and gritty; it truly blurs the lines between the poet’s life and a fantasy world.  The reader will spend the first read-through trying to find the author as much as the poetry and find that both are subject to interpretation: “My brain: rack and pinion/piston: / misfires. Pretty soon I’m drifting at lake’s center…”  and later, “A gun balloons one hand like a fiddler crab’s.” At this point, the reader must stop trying to make ready comparisons.

Millar embraces the ambiguity between story and self, and in no way are his thoughts tired or unoriginal.  Poems like “Zero Effect,” and “Rivers, Green and Not So” present existence in a spatial sense.  The reader gets the feeling of doors and sliding walls surrounding the poet and actually changing his identity. After staring at the “twenty-seven corners of my apartment” Millar focuses on some other self that isn’t, then, “I try on the hat.  I try on the name and it fits.”  As reality shifts without reason through time and space, so does personal identity.  The fickleness of truth in reality isn’t happening to us; it’s us. Yet amid the fickleness and disconnect, he maintains a drinking, gambling sarcasm:

Even my most insidious poker face
has seen my well-earned dollars
drift southward in the arms of friends harvesting
their shiny cranberries from the money bog.
Wanna go another round? Hell, hit me.
Vector formulas and stratagem of battle,
pickup lines and names for faces, stout
and slippery as language…

What if anything does a human face have to do with the abstract language (name) used to describe the human? Millar presents the idea of human reality/unreality early on in the book.  This leads to even more fantasizing as he progresses.  His fantasy is not whimsical or escapist, but for the sake of stronger knowledge.  He seamlessly ties any modern character (e.g. a family member, a meth dealer, himself) to mythical archetypes.  In the poem, “In Defense of Escapism as a Means to Express Free Will,” he writes:

A minatory bull is nearly redundant if the human element is excluded because the essence is still available & doesn’t myth reveal, finally, a certain elimination of the non-derivative Self?  We all must press the rock uphill or fuck a swan.  It’s give in or give up.

If our minds are coping with a constant reality shift in time and space, a myth is as rational an explanation for experience as any science.  Nothing should be ignored; nothing is ignored in Millar’s search for “the non-derivative Self.”

The idea of the unstable self has a fantastic affect on “Autobiomythography” both in its meaning and its movement.  In “Gallery” Millar continues that theme, but the primary focus becomes movement.  “Gallery” opens up to the reader with more unbridled chaos.  Even with its less constricted feeling, Millar maintains a perfect control over the direction of this large piece.  The reader is introduced with “Prelude” to a Bacchanal Carnival.  “Gallery, Where the Memory of the Body (i) Converges with its Various Instances,” maintains that feel as the reader tries to follow every aching part. The poem, printed sideways to accommodate its long lines, is dense with murky self-reflection and abstract reasoning; out of all the confusion, there are many lines that rise up and bite you in the back:

The gallery
not where you hang        portraits but where
      washed images slide from their celluloid frames
in corners the mind regrets having glanced at, the glances that glance

And later, what seems like his battle cry: “Better to circle the thing with abstractions than / pin it down, where it can stare back at you.” In the end, Millar seems a poet that seems very strong and very real—a poet that works. The book’s final lines suggest the idea that people might be the sum of their own contradictions, and that they might be applauded for it:

White lights, the stage liquefied.
They stand and bow, smiling,
maskless, their costumes gripping their insulated bodies.
And of course, we all rise to our feet.
We had been on our knees since the beginning.

There are too many aspects to Autobiomythography & Gallery to be discussed in a review.  The thoughts here, subjective and limited, only give an impression of what is an incredibly tight and accomplished piece of work.  This is great poetry; it presents itself wholly and defeats any attempt to break it into composite parts.  Joe Millar has put together a remarkable first collection.