The Book of Props
by Wayne Miller
Milkweed Editions 2009
Reviewed by John Deming
What Will Suffice
It is impossible to imagine an empty room. Your bedroom is strange when there’s nobody home. All the stranger at the end of the day when you open the door and walk inside.
Beyond strange are guest rooms in the houses of friends and relatives. A first-person narrator in Wayne Miller’s poem “Sleep Suite,” the first poem in his second collection, The Book of Props, makes acquaintance with such a room while preparing to sleep inside it. He describes the view from his borrowed bed:
pressed the shadow of a tree
to the window screen, the same shadow
also on the bedside wall.
They rocked with the wind in tandem,
myself wedged between them
in that spare room I returned to
and then returned in the morning.
An empty room is pressed with stillness. There is motion here—the movement of shadows—but it has nothing to do with human cognition, and is likely there on nights when the room is absent a living person.
The speaker here is calm and intellectual, but doesn’t lack the terror of a child kept awake in the night by shadows. Maybe a child is right to be afraid when “wedged” into such overwhelming nothingness. Yet the speaker is careful to note that the room is his to “return” in the morning—for if he sleeps in the room, he becomes unconscious, and ceases to impose his own thoughts or imagination on it; he becomes as much a part of its landscape as the bed, the screen, the shadows.
Humans can’t comprehend stillness. If we flatline, we’re dead. In a living heart, mind, or set of eyes, lives a constant repumping and resetting. Sleep is similar to stillness—it fuses the sleeper with a room’s own blankness, and “gives the body back its mouth”—but really stillness, nothingness, can only be achieved in death.
So there is terror in Miller. But also logic: whatever stillness is, it is as likely to be nightmarish as it is to be calming, or as it is to be completely neutral, rounded in all aspects. The only real tension that exists is the tension between the way things are now and the way they will be moments from now: the problem of constant change.
This is exemplified in one the book’s best poems, “Nude Asleep in the Tub.” The title smacks of stillness, sounds in fact like the title of a painting (though a few moments’ turned up nothing definite). At the start of the poem, we find a nude woman, asleep in a tub:
As if she were something opened—
like a pocket watch—her body
slipped beneath a surface
peeled back to reveal its surface—
drops of air clinging to her thighs
like roe. Outside, the snow…
There is a peculiar mathematics to this image: she is covered by water, but also opened by it: clarified, defined. The image is static and silent, an antidote to the problem of time, until shockingly, she wakes and walks out:
the room’s edges radiated
from her, as if I were inside
her thought. But then,
before any of this could register,
the clothesline creaked
and the wind picked up,
and she stirred, so the water
broke from her into water.
She ought to have stayed in there forever. But the still life had to end. The moment is extreme, like a “touch” in Whitman. The human urge to freeze time, or to preserve certain satisfactions, can be in found in all artistic mediums. The passage of time is an abstraction, maybe gravity’s work against the stasis of spacetime. One feels time passing—now—but the sum of all time passed and to pass is impossibly constant. And governed by light.
There is in people the urge to “pin it down”—to find satisfaction, to arrive. But time keeps passing, and nothing can hold. If the passage of time is our abstraction and our problem, it is useful to consider the things that people do to get by, or the things we use to prop ourselves up: to use a Stevens phrase, to find “what will suffice.” As Stevens explained, and as Miller demonstrates, our general response is to impose imagination on the world:
left out on the brownstone
stoop caught light
as we passed by, and so
we gave them great
If the glasses are indeed watching the poet and his companion, then Miller is in part surrealist; yet always the logician, he is sure to point out that this is the imposition of human imagination. The glasses possess a reasoned otherness; their strangeness is isolated and real. To consider them at all is to imagine them, to divine a prop. To view a pair of glasses is to project an image of them in your brain. To imagine them. The flare of light, light a speed but a mysterious constant, enhances the sensation.
Yet eating means more eating. Needs mean more of themselves. For every satisfaction, there is greater need, until death. In “Still Lifes and ______scapes”, a man who has loved Rembrandt’s Danaё his whole life sees the painting in person for the first time and “doesn’t see much // more than he did on the page”, yet he “fears losing it // the moment he turns away.” And at the close of the title poem, a couple in the back of a cab is breathless in its attempt to be satisfied:
—Those poor lovers
drifting sexward in a river
of lights: now even
their kiss has become
another object pressed
The urge to blend makes sense when recalling the “Sleep Suite” narrator, the man who sleeps in the spare room. In sleep, this person became a part of something that had seemed alien, or separate, only moments before. So perhaps the human problem isn’t simply a problem of time or of change, but of a separation from things and from one another. It is the fact that once people are finally able to blend, they aren’t there to experience it, because they’re either dead or sleeping. Our minds are what make us want to blend, and our minds are the very thing that prevent us from doing so. To bother another phrase from Stevens: “It is the human that is the alien.”
Miller has his own props in this book, the most obvious of which are Justine, Andy and Clarence, the characters from peculiar Section III, titled “What Night Says to the Empty Boat (Notes for a Film in Verse).” The section would be ill-fitting if the rest of The Book of Props failed blend so seamlessly in tone and delivery. Yet it is inarguably different from Sections I, II and IV, employing a cast of characters in place of a first person narrator, and envisioning itself with an omniscent moviemaker’s eye: “We’ll hold // on these flakes of light”.
In any story, we come to value characters based on decisions that they make. The strange thing about Section III is that there is no real plot to the “film in verse,” or no crucial decisions being made. It is in most places a catalogue of each character’s abstract observations during moments of pause and reflection. In the fifth poem in the section, “Justine’s Childhood (Abroad),” we see Justine on a sailboat, watching the shadow of the sail on the water:
…The rippling chop
enhances the shadow’s
illusion of fluttering. Though,
It’s only the sail that flutters,
Justine says to herself—
the shadow’s untouched
by the wind that propels it.
The shadow is propelled by wind it never touches. It’s an interesting idea and savory image, but why it has to be attributed to some abstract “Justine” rather than the first person narrator we’ve come to know in Sections I and II is unclear, beyond the fact that his poem is in the “film in verse” section. In “The Tightrope Walker,” Clarence, ostensibly Justine’s “lover,” talks to her on the phone about a tightrope walker’s chances of falling:
…Perhaps two lovers
—like us—talking across the country, will hear
a trembling in their voices,
as the quivering wire upsets the birds—
It’s hard to hear Clarence refer to his lover as his “lover,” the word even more dramatic here than it was with the lovers in the cab. Again, the conversation arrives without context; we are only just meeting “Clarence,” so it’s hard to find justification for this melodrama, even given that this is a “film.”
But proceeding through their world, it is easy to become absorbed; the characters are anybody’s characters. They provide pattern and multiplicity to what might have been a limited perspective. The details of their stories are scattered, but each is humanized by an ability to perceive. Consider the thoughts of Andy, a drawbridge operator, watching a game at a bar during “Andy’s Monologue”:
…What we’ve done
becomes us—I know this—: exercise
becomes muscles, and, bless it,
touching a woman sometimes becomes
feelings. [He points to an instant
replay above him on the screen.]
See how he holds onto it?—that’s
perfection. And I say thank God for it—
for those men who stay in motion above us
each Sunday, while we get good
These kinds of details, then, become most important. Where some stories are built to show a character persevering, or experiencing or achieving something unusual or extraordinary, this series of poems is important because it takes us inside the mind. We see moments of reflection that are often unheralded and that vanish a moment after they take place. We watch people with props, people finding what will suffice while they can. Perhaps, ultimately, that will be our story.
It is impossible to imagine an empty room because once the room has been imagined, it has been fused with something. Miller’s world involves the stillness of empty rooms, involves generally the struggle of cognition against the absence of cognition. Humans are a part of things, but also are dramatically removed. In “Landing,” part of the “film in verse,” Justine and Clarence see the city from above:
like a nickel of light
dropped in a field
It brings to mind Stevens and “Anecdote of the Jar.” The field imposes itself on the city as much as the city takes dominion over the field. Miller is calm in between, and provides greater illumination the more that you read him. He has the stuff of an outstanding poet. He has a mind bred from Stevens and an eye bred from Williams, synthesizing them with a flare for passionate romance that, in its most effective applications, allows for humans as a part of the world—in part for our ability to control light as survival against darkness. At the close of the book, we are back in a dark room:
leaf remains pressed
to the window, all day lit up
with sunlight, then at night,
lit by whoever
inhabits the room—
There is stillness but constant motion, the most important of which might belong to light, measured in some platforms as a constant. Amid constant motion, there are hints at stillness, and stillness implies eternity. We are still, but constantly moving—not back to front like in a movie, but with lateral shifts, like the surface of water.