Page 22


but she consistently attempts to accept her condition, as in “Casual,” where she declares that the grief that “wears” her she “will wear yet / cut to a pattern with pain’s shears, / sown with a fine seam of sorrow, / stitched with tears.” She moves on to compare her “grief turned into my skin” to the body of a beautiful woman who, she says, will never “go more proudly / in silk or satin, velvet or furs…or with the flounce and flaunt of that body of hers / proclaim / more loudly / or with more shine / ‘Mine!'” Miller’s poem concludes with the speaker casting aside her grief/ skin and dancing for the Lord in her “crazy bones.” N EQUALLY OBSESSIVE motif in Miller’s poetry, as indicated by the title of her collected poems, is the search for love. In a sonnet entitled “The Quarry” reminiscent of Shakespeare’s number 73 Miller attempts to define love, the “Magic creature none can ever snare…the air itself, the breath ashake / Among the leaves the bird no longer there.” Similarly, in “Love’s Eschatology,” the poet discovers that absence paradoxically produces the fullest knowledge of an object of love: “Never has your body / before so budded to my senses / as to ‘y empty fingers.” Or in “Thom in the Flesh,” Miller declares “My days are full / but sometimes / only of your absence.” Love for Miller is not simply Platonic, for in spite of what she describes metaphorically in “Offering: For All My Loves” as her vessel “shaped to misshapenness / Iii a hunk of corroded tin,” she longs for a physical, even lustful consummation. In place of such, the poet finds, from time to time, a way of being “a stranger in my own skin,” as she puts it in “Encounter.” In this and other poems she refers or alludes to herself as a stranger, an exile, a refugee, but ultimately, as in “Encounter,” awakens at the work of an unnamed person astonished in the streets of my identity, and there you left me, but not before your flesh, breathed in a muted sentence, instructed me in mine. On occasion, as in “Spastics” and in “Nuptial Benediction,” Miller acknowledges the agony faced by those regarded as physically unbeautiful, who “rarely marry, expected to make it with Jesus,” “disrobe, so some might guess, / For crosses, not for marriage sheets.” Despite a feeling of worthlessness that is expressed or implied because of her lack of knowledge of physical love, the poet repeatedly finds that she, like the figure in “For a Senile Woman,” is “ransomed from life’s discard table.” Fortunate we are that Vassar Miller has managed all these years, as the title of her second book puts it, to “wage war on silence,” overcoming not only disability but self-pity, as well as a body that is, as she says in “Epitaph for a Cripple,” a “wry reproach / To athlete mind.” For Miller’s mind is indeed as agile and muscular as the toned and trained body of any Olympic medalist: While much of Miller’s poetry is preoccupied with her private struggles in the words of her 1984 volume “to swim on concrete,” there is also the public voice to be heard in the poem on George Wallace and in the many elegies, memorials, and tributes to friends, relatives, her dog Buffy, cats, the singer Sophie Tucker, Billy Carter, her maid Rosa Sells, Thomas Merton and even the wife of Lot. Her ability to write heartfelt and insightful observations on others’ lives is owing, it would seem, to her own deeply pondered life. While it has perhaps been more difficult for her to find humor in her own circumstances, in the more public poems there is at times a touching bit of comic relief at work, as in “Elegy for a Good Ole Boy” and “A Rage for Order for Rose.” The former remembers how “They taken [Billy Carter’s] beers,” and it “made my heart melt / `cause I knowed what he felt.” The poet recalls how she herself behaved as Billy did when ‘I done things I shouldn’t / ‘n I caught the same.'” The poet ends her poem with this appeal: “Lord, give him the cheer / of many a beer. / There [in heaven] it won’t hurt his liver / ‘n nobody don’t ever / have no hangover.” One of two poems for Rosa Sells, “A Rage for Order,” like the elegy for Billy, employs humorous dialect for treatment of a rather serious charge: that God is a poor housekeeper. “You wouldn’t want Him in your house,” the poet exclaims in Rosa’s voice. No Lordy! Like them amens, no good at sweeping, And look, just will you, all those leaves let loose! That great big broom cod makes those old fall winds with Like He ain’t thought about nobody’s yard. Miller’s poem entitled “Mrs. Lot” also contains a number of humorous touches, in this case in connection with an issue in need of reconsideration: the reason women are “apt to cling to their homes not having in those days much else to cling to and what if they clung like Lot’s poor wife whose name we don’t even know to recall, she having to pull up stakes and get out just because some men liked other men, that being none of her affair, besides which she’d never liked Uncle Abraham’s loose THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19