Chloe Yelena Miller, Unrest, Finishing Line Press, 2013
by John Olski
With titles like Dying at Home, 1937 … I Lack You … Haunt Me. Repeat. … and Italian Vocabulary: Mancanza, the poems of Chloe Yelena Miller’s 2013 chapbook Unrest signal their attention to loss, love and language. Of those three basic themes, observations on language unite the collection more overtly than with most chapbooks as Miller—a writing teacher—challenges the conventions of grammar and rhetoric.
The poem Relocating, for example, relocates the focal point associated with narrative voice. It begins:
We unpack time,
station objects to recreate departed
spaces. Moving unsettles
dust, order. Here, two lifetimes,
minus things lost, like the book of soldiers’ stories,
and his unwashed shirt.
We do not forget him, the losing.
Identities of the narrative “we” and the subject “him” remain mysteries, giving the abstraction Relocating a more concrete presence as the only name (a poem’s title). Readers can associate a book and a shirt with suggested people of the poem, but that’s generic—who in the audience doesn’t own a book or a shirt? The focus remains conceptual: relocating, packing/unpacking, forgetting and loss.
A sentence fragment follows “the losing”:
The gap that seizes,
covers its mouth politely,
before latching closed.
With a clever use of commas delineating the strophe like so many objects transported, the four lines summarize reaction to loss as dysfunction, exhaustion, proper form, and closure. It’s a wonderfully complex metaphor, packed as a trunk or suitcase which, in the spirit of the chapbook title Unrest:
Then unhinges in transit.
All of the 22 poems in Unrest reward readers with linguistic observation or play, though several seem formally unsatisfying. Consider the poem Salty:
Fresh mozzarella resists my bite.
Like your beard, even when I’m close enough.
Or the ocean, so solid from above.
The Italians say they have hunger.
In New Jersey, I’m hungry. In Florence, I have it.
We are salty after a swim.
It isn’t polite to say it, but
you taste good.
The first strophe offers a wonderful juxtaposition of images, including mozzarella, beard, ocean, a play on appetite, and a scale change from mouth to aerial view.
The second strophe moves geographically and culturally, though the reader may begin to want more explication on the relevant difference between English “I am hungry” and Italian “I have hunger”—what the poet finds significant between adjective and noun.
The third strophe offers structural return with the title word “salty,” but the final two lines disappoint, with “you taste good” sounding unpoetic as a conclusion, and the notion of politeness in saying it being superfluous if the tasting has already occurred. One might create deeper connections from prior material, i.e., you are solid from a distance like the ocean, and I can savor your saltiness from a distance, having hunger without being hunger—but that seems like doing work the poet didn’t. Still, elements of the poem are engaging, and there’s some reward in contemplating a more satisfying approach to the material.
Italian is generally Chloe Yelena Miller’s reference for examining English, but even Esperanto serves that purpose in the poem No Infinitive, in which the narrator shares a swim with a speaker of that constructed language and can ponder, “Gender neutral, were we / heterosexual? The flexible / syntax translucent, nudity’s definition.”
Miller’s strength as a poet might be summarized with her phrase “The flexible / syntax translucent…” Poems in Unrest offer readers a coherency of voice, imagery and themes they’d expect from a chapbook, yet with the bonus of seeing language for some of its muscle and sinew.
John Olski is a Library Service Associate for Brown County and a former adjunct instructor of college composition.