Only the Senses Sleep
by Wayne Miller
New Issues 2006
Reviewed by Scott Hightower
…only the senses
On some level, the title of Wayne Miller’s book could point to themes worthy of “Solaris.” Only the senses sleep… while the poetic, imaginative life––the ever turning, mysterious, more fundamental, more volatile life of the poet––floats subliminally on and on into the vast space of the muse. Wayne Miller’s beautiful lyrics have nothing to do with science fiction. They have everything to do with light and dark, with floating below and floating above, with being in and out, with concrete and abstract language wrapping around itself like a barber’s pole… “winding up / the thread of all that names fail to say”:
And now I lift
myself into each day
as if into my body, go to work,
and then at night, my lit room
slips down into the glass.
The factories blow their smoke
up through the snow, the city
lifts our lights a little closer
to the sky….
Somewhere, folks are digging
a well, while elsewhere
the lit needles of gunshots
and fireflies––. I can assure you
that our lives keep fracturing
into notes, I can promise you
that a white fence without light
is like a sail without wind.
(“Dear Sappho,” –– Section I)
Miller’s lyric poems are some of the best this reviewer has read for some years. (And a first book at that.) The book is divided into three sections, each section having one poem addressed to Sappho, the classical lyric poet’s poet herself. But each section begins grounded in the props of a physical life; a world of wrap around porches, golf course sprinklers on timers, Presbyterian bell choirs, salted streets, lovers, lit rooms, books opening and closing like valves, icy basketball hoops hanging like chandeliers. Millers sensibility is complex: literally, a European eye for relationships; aesthetically, a mature love of sense; actually, a post-Enlightenment, optimistic, American assumption of possibility, decency, and fair play. Miller believes in the abstract and the concrete valences of his own reality and in the languages that he recognizes those valences have bestowed on him and in him. Miller believes in poetry.
Miller’s poems have shadows, long shadows. But they are not murderous shadows. Miller’s shadows are interior shadows:
The sunlight comes as if through a phonograph needle––
a robust chord of light that’s somehow thin at the heart
of how it says what it has to say. Still, the walls
are soothed, long shadows stretching westward
from the hanging signs and the squat fireplug,
not-quite-vestigial tails of the street’s unnamed life.
(“Rounding the Corner into ‘Early Sunday Morning’”)
The zone of no-sleep is also on the inside:
sleep is a poor proof of an emptiness
inside us––sleep turns the body into world.
Yet, sometimes I’m stunned by the light
of the fridge when I finally open my eyes;
(“Dear Sappho,” –– Section II)
The interior space of no sleep does not mean interior emptiness. It is the landscape of the interplay of interior light and dark, of interior pause and sound. Fundamentally, while not as harrowing (one could even evoke Dante here), Miller is Blakian; the Spirit of Prophecy dwells on the inside:
we are in this continuousness––our lives
dissolved in the channels of written lines––
every word I’ve read was in me before I read it.
They’re pulled from me like seconds
from the cistern of an unfinished life. Love’s
endless weathering moves the body
of our words: we read to understand
we’re not alone in it––we carry one another,
though we do this alone.
(“Reading Sonnevi on a Tuesday Night)
Miller’s book, it should be noted, begins with an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” a poem about the metaphysics of knowledge being drawn from the physical experience of the senses.
In “Only the Senses Sleep,” Miller’s ambition is artfully actualized at every turn. And a huge ambition it is. This is not the ambition of noble, inflated lyrics, but the ambition of striking into the bedrock of the fundamental, essence of poetry itself. Miller finds the systolic and diastolic pulses of poetic belief:
At any one point in time, half the world’s
rocking in the other half’s shadow,
as we are now. Each soul’s wrapped
in a name’s slick membrane, each image
enters through the liquid coating our eyes.
Each moment’s a bailed teaspoon of water.
Nonetheless, the city’s deadbolts
wind and unwind the gears of our living watch,
the books open and close like valves.
My neighbors’ breathing holds me
because it continues to move. Unwavering
light under the door like a sheet of paper––
thinning now, as the city’s tesserae
take the day’s first pale sips,
as the street presses its bell to the window,
as our shared water begins dividing
across our dream-cold bodies.
What remains for us has always been
what’s arriving. We know this,
dearest belief––we know you each second,
only the senses sleep.