Midnights, Poetry by Jane Miller & Artwork by Beverly Pepper
(With Introduction by C.D. Wright)
(Saturnalia Books, 2007)
‘Midnight’ is a loaded word, almost a cliché. It is shorthand for all sorts of dark and gloomy, moment-of-truth type of statements. A major accomplishment of Jane Miller’s Midnights is that she rescues middle-of-the-night ideas from worn-out truisms and offers them as the torturous realities they can be in experience.
Despite the dark subjects, Miller’s approach is open and flexible. She tells numerous stories, using a variety of formats. The stories are universal—her lover is leaving, her mother is dying. She describes touchy relationships and affection for friends, and through it all, she writes about the challenge of writing. The individual facts of one’s life are achingly personal, the challenge of finding meaning in them is the gift—and curse—of the artist.
Midnights meets that challenge partly through its form. The book has a tight structure of four parts. Each section is introduced with a traditionally-formatted poem, the only poems in the book with titles. Each introductory poem is followed by a series of prose poems that carry forward most of the narrative. Miller uses the varied formats to weave together her observations on life, literature, art and politics, from the mundane to the flash of brilliance.
The first lines of the first poem set the stage:
It is mostly midnight
inhabiting a strange space.
It makes no difference to me
“(M)ostly midnight:” whether it is literally midnight or three in the afternoon, it is midnight in the heart and mind. The poems look unblinkingly into loss. Some is unavoidable, some the result of choices turning sour. Her mother’s illness carries the endlessly repeated lessons of the passage of time and its inevitable thievery. But the pain of betrayal is something else.
Unhappily, if that is the right word, I have cracked the bowl of the one slave I am permitted to touch on this earth with a scream so high-pitched as to be inaudible, except that, unfortunately, she heard it, and lies in bed now with a new lover’s hands over her ears.
If the time is midnight, the mode is movement. The poet moves, both physically and mentally. She writes in Arizona, in California, in Italy. She travels by airplane and captures the fatigue and unworldly stress of airports, she visits hospitals and captures the technological prison-like atmosphere of bright lights and bodies going bad. She writes in sterile hotel rooms and in a much-loved garden. The mind is never still, the body is in constant motion.
An example of the way the poet’s mind travels is found in section xxii. The oppressive heat of southern California brings to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “perfect description of wind through a summerhouse making things worse.” This idea of summer leads to the image of pink roses, with petals that suggest “the faces of boys who stop by Caravaggio’s studio, looking for him and looking for work. . .” The roses also suggest babies and the refusal of the poet’s lover to consider a child, a thought “buried” like a garment is buried as part of a Jewish funeral.
That thought leads to Osip Mandelstam—“excuse me for intruding on your afterlife,” Miller says politely, quoting his famous statement about the vitality of poetry: “Only in Russia, poetry is respected—it gets people killed.” Finally, the roses become the lovers, “so light a pink that we are nearly white, invisible. (I am braced to you.)”
Art, literature, history and politics are all part of the multiple realities explored in Midnights. For example, what politicians call ‘illegal immigration,” Miller names “power and slavery.” She describes the murderous trek through the desert, where both the land and border agents threaten those seeking work and a better life.
It takes more than a broken poet,
More than the most sacred heart, more than a cathedral to hold them in its embrace, these women and girls and boys and men being fired upon. Those of us who are writers write about the forlorn.
Those “forlorn” in the desert lead to thoughts of the Jews in Nazi Germany, which then leads to the poet Paul Celan, one of the poetic presences that permeate Midnights. Grappling with the incomprehensible, Miller writes of “the giants I admire, who could not live—Paul Celan, Virginia Woolf—but who lived anyway, suffering mind bends.”
Celan and Woolf are models for Miller here, brilliant thinkers but also suicides. They died by drowning, another truth that haunts this book. Sometimes life is too much, sometimes pain and terror win. Sometimes even geniuses can’t take it. Death by drowning is both a literal fact and a metaphor for despair.
The vision in Midnights is expanded as well with pictures. The book is part of a series from Saturnalia Books that pairs writers and artists. The stark black and white drawings by Beverly Pepper don’t illustrate Miller’s stories as much at they suggest other ways of seeing her ideas.
The visual images are stark and suggestive. The first, used on the cover, is a triangle, suggesting both precarious balance and sheer femininity. Another looming dark shape—to me—seems like the fear of midnight itself, dangerous, threatening. Yet another image suggests a group of black shapes—the figures of the past, perhaps, or the chorus in a Greek tragedy. All lives are haunted by those voices.
In the last section, Miller appears to achieve a sort of reconciliation as the poems seek to balance emotion and artistic expression. The poet visits the Rothko Chapel, where “a violet middle panel weeps; on each side, night falls on a darker, midnight blue panel of the watery beginning of time.” The poem quotes Rothko: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.” Modern artists may not paint Madonnas or crucifixions, Miller seems to say, but they still capture the spirituality of their times.
As the book ends, Miller cleans out her apartment, with a little help from her friends, and balances her thoughts, emotions, reactions and observations into threads of poetry. She works, she tries to heal but most of all, she remembers and puts it all into language.
Francie Noyes is a poet and writer living in Phoenix, Arizona. Formerly a political reporter, gubernatorial press secretary and movie critic, she now focuses on poetry and film writing. Her work has appeared in Panamowa, Key West: a collection and The Anthology of New England Writers 2002.