Reviews — Volkswagen Constellation

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Volkswagen Constellation


Prairie Schooner _____________________________________________________

Rust _____________________________________________________

by Tim McBride

Conrad’s Marlow, Joseph speaks with fierce and the authority of hard-won experience. In his third collection, Blue . he lays down “the of irony” without taking up the of easy sentiment or posturing The result is an unstrained originality: that avoid the metronome, of imagination in which the associative never trails off into incoherence. Joe Millar looks at a world that is doomed and What sets Blue Rus t is his ability to honor both terms.

The book’s expansive with “Nativity” and ending “The Day of the Dead”—suggests something of fearless and omnivorous imagination. No are off limits. He begins in the “birth of his own delivery, an “insatiable mammal” that his mother “loved me and me / through those early “I saw … I heard …. I wanted” he intones, in the of Whitman, but the poem ends on an note, not an ecstatic one—alyricless of than of farewell. His unholy, family is on the road—but the movement is not into expanding possibility, but through the rust belt of a where freedom and innocence been sundered by the threat of war:

In August the Japanese

and [my father] mustered out in Wisconsin.

We east in in a ’38 Studebaker,

its big engine the miles

of America, wheat and highway,

Chicago and Cleveland and named me So Long

It’s Good To Know You.”

If he with Whitman sing the of progress and technology (no “Passage to here),Millar retains an eye for the damaged of individuals, communities, and machines. In the Donut Shop Jukebox, he a poem of redemption and rebirth out of may be the most unpromising materials assembled. Crystal meth, food, ditch water, a battery, jumper cables, weeds, people late for details coexist with a irrepressible sense of joy:

I the engine roaring to life, a

red dogwood shedding its flowers

the sidewalk, over the fence.

I your hat with its purple

cheap as a melody, cheap as a

This kind of unexpected occurs again and again in Rust . At once a child of the and working man, Millar a cold but compassionate eye on the platitudes of the hippie and the hardhat. In his remarkable for example, he moves easily the peace demonstrators without the mob mentality of the “huge angry Millar’s Ginsberg sounds his aum ” across the White House but when the speeches end, he tells the unruly protesters “to up their trash.”This is the distinctive touch,refusing to simplify, always in Martin Amis’s phrase, cliché.” How many poets present Ginsberg as a voice of without distorting his essential or expose the naivetéand violent of the peace protestors, without the ideals they profess? the sun went down / the trouble he tells us:

Someone set fire to a squad car

and the moon overhead

which we we could swallow,

its pale and electric dust,

the shadowy on its dark side,

though it was in Vietnam,

land of rice and ancient poetry,

land of the pond hidden from

its presence so hard to know.

the second and third books of writers, Millar’s work has progressively stronger, the emotional wider; the risks more and heartfelt; the eye for beauty more haunted and nuanced; the convictions troubled; the forms more (here more experimental, more traditional); the self-exposures revealing, the poems more uplifting, and assured even as they offer us less and in the way of assurance.

Section two of the book of a six-page free verse “Ocean,” which draws, in on Millar’s experiences as a fisherman in The poem has a kind of tidal in which past and present to Proustian effect: “Each lying down / in our sea-wrack, day waking into our skin:

close and whisper the names

of the names of the dead returning,

holding their hands

litter of sea-straw and sand dark metal,

song of and going away.

Elsewhere uses rhyme and meter to compelling effect, as in the emotionally “Kiski Flats,” in memory of his The poem deserves to be quoted in

Soon we’ll be driving the road

I left by, shining mica

blistered with the back porch

collapsed we ate the charred onion rings

the Steelers on channel four,

the sunk deep in the workbench he

It’s no crime to be tired of the

to be secretive, hiding your

We peer now into the choppy

the windows wavy with age and

Let the phone ring forever, let the

pile up. Let the dry nest fall

stuck together with year’s mud

The book repeatedly to us as a solitary voice from the dark. Though the style is all his Millar, like Frost, is one with the night” or like “watchers on the wall/ “awake all who know/the pity of it all.”“Nothing to or see or hold onto,” says the in “Nightbound,” “blue rust away from your As the title phrase suggests, vision is of a world at oncehopeless and Blue Rust is the mature of a brave poet with a and inimitable voice. It’s the best book I’ve all year.

Cortland Review


by David Rigsbee

What do we of the past, with its issues and its leathery solemnities, its errors, and passions? It’s by no means how backward gazing will get us any along on the way to the Promised Land, nor how the of past things on the present be accomplished without a lingering of that old mortality that the past spiraling backward in the place. I remember hearing an of a literary set-to that place between a prominent poet and a British critic. The went over the familiar that western poetry was on the stupendous past and on meditations of a and metaphysical sort. But the poet in that much Chinese by contrast, was based on friendship, to the critic retorted that so was poetry. from Dante to to Tennyson to Yeats. Yeah, the replied, and all the friends are dead! Now I it that the proposition that all friends are dead is indeed to inject caution in the most imagination. The sneaking suspicion the exchange is that the poets these finished friendships in to strengthen their ties the doings of yore, orienting backwards, so to speak, even if the looked to the less deceived a kind of creeping necrophilia.

Millar’s new collection, his third, than touches on loss, it would be damnable to leave it at the which has gathered its implications and into the figure of a yawn. His engage in Boomer retrospection to be and it is a question that must be by each member of that (I am one): how much indulgence be given to nostalgia, however how much to origins, however or for that matter utterly The title, Blue Rust. at temporal erosions and at a possible of the two terms, blue and rust. It signals that the poet is to take us to sites of origins, and in doing so he may drag their into the present. Quite from the deeper questions of search and query and the effect of on the present—of the dead on the living, and the on the present—what emerges is a persona, of these poems cast as a man keen to true the level on without betraying much over language’s ability to authenticity. Here is also the of person you would like to back a few with, whose against life’s injustices spread out and try to guilt-trip the other bar It may be that in evolving this Millar is speaking to capacities of to create not just images for the but the type of person who can resolve the such images present—by the further image of a persuasive man whose opinions and poetic have not been chiefly by literature. In another poet, would translate into a persona, but Millar has just of the tragic and the contingent flowing in his not to fall for that dodge. is a poet in some sense with the results of his dice, chance doesn’t quite get the I want. It’s more emotional savoir faire, the natural grace toward his host country.

When James Tate that American poetry was on the notion that something hurt me once, he was a referring to, a lot of poets and to several thick of our poetic history, not the least of was the School of James Wright, one of spiritual students is Joseph But if that is the case, it’s the the way in which Millar’s poetry Tate’s illuminating japery, makes Millar’s poems so appealing. Behind Wright’s was the danger of sentimentality, and it wasn’t a throw from that to error to the moral dead-end of Millar shares Wright’s creds; indeed at times he to draw near Carver’s mass, except that vulnerabilities are all too clear, his temptations not a matter of record, but a source of In America the secret, often shame attaching to origins is the source of power for many of our writers (think any number of writers). There also the writer who learns to transact the minus sentimentality or chagrin. For writer, such are divergences the objective, namely to represent Blake called the products of of which that poet us that eternity—read the most viewpoint—was in love. Millar’s might even be poems of except that the very seems snagged in the moss of the and hence of little explanatory except perhaps to remind reading that tonality—aesthetics, balance, wit—can almost be to smooth the chafe of the noose.

not surprising to find then Millar’s poems are filled highways and marriages: the former the of mobility and transport; the latter the to rest, sometimes to settle. twin temptations were on show and waiting for the poet at

My mother wrapped me in her robe

with camphor and sweat,

my desolate howls.

She loved me and she me

through those early

when I wanted everything she

and all my father wanted

aside her warm, pale body,

was to his hitch and get

the hell out of the army

( Nativity)

But it’s not all William post WWII self-rearing we witness in these poems. has a sharp eye, and the vividness of prevents him from settling for platitudes. So on the one hand he avails of pop culture to set the stage—a stage framed in the confines of lyric On the other, it’s the feel, the and the smell that authenticates the not the celebrity matrix. Indeed, turns us away towards and desire, but settling—in both as much a temptation as Frost’s

You could settle down by her

turning your back on the outside,

hidden away in her

smelling the spaghetti sauce

a child or an old man. You could

easy and die happy, a candle

in every window, the blue needle

and hands of the clock north

through the field’s grass.

You could make grave in her.

( Romance)

It was the dream, after all, with earthy, working-class, solidarity, that drove the nostalgia engine, the one that eschewed corporate creep and commodification. In its way, we Boomers through as rich and mucky a of romanticism as any Wordsworth or Keats, and the pendulum swung back—the one on theory by poets in neckties—it off a lot of well meaning but ultimately wannabes. It’s amazing, you think about it, that so memorable poetry attaches to vaunted generation about its and the feel of the time. Most of the energies went to popular and our musical bards turned often against their to be our chroniclers.

Millar typically a medium-length lyric that’s on voice and exact with lifting what nourished from a submerged narrative. Pop icons frequently get a shout-out in work, like ne’er-do-wells in a gradebook. He ticks the names Jackie Gleason, Sarah Little Anthony, The Del-Vikings, Newman, Chuck Berry, The Dead, Michael Bloomfield, Rourke, Carlos Santana, Bo Willie Dixon, The Who, Messenger Service, Michael Elvis, Fellini, The Beatles, Marx, Dali, Joe Hill, Gene Autry, Randolph Jean Cocteau, Sam Peckinpah. with this rogue’s the roster of poets might slim: Villon, John Vallejo, Allen Ginsberg, Wright, Larry Levis. And yet is a personal logic to such and we are way past the day when homogenous literacy required remote, resonators. I seem to remember my own telling us to beware where you get mythologies. They were that references to The Doors or Hoffman would obligate us to by and by. They seemed to have Hegel’s advice to historicize Millar’s use of this familiar yet constellation reminded me more once of the similar, but preppier, Halliday, just as his orientation his own version of the mysterium tremendum is of the cosmic middle-American, horse-breaking, Dan Gerber, but lighter on the Zen and more

And what stories they Millar writes a poem in its unfolding, as befits a former working the boats like the in the marvelous and unexpected ocean:

One night the fisherman told us

run aground in the river mouth,

mired deep in black He said he saw

the hour of his birth, the slowly

filling with kelp stretched out

like a covering the flanks of the marsh,

Volkswagen Constellation

the wretched age, monstrous and

hair full of dead rayed petals clustered,

of dark gravel exposed.


He us sometimes he’d rather be

than face the gray house

and a day-job, his heart iron

remembering the sea and staring

at pallets stacked in a warehouse

of creosote.

The poem goes off in a different direction from other in this collection. It is mythy, and the experience is closer to George Seferis than Levine or David Ray. By I mean it quests at the level our commonalities thin, and the ocean, as mother, seems at once and a stretch. We seek authentication on the of evidence, and when it comes to and generally mystifying, the ocean disappoint. It’s also never less than For the old fisherman,

No place will be now

except for the sad bar, barren of

except for the motel near the

with its flocked wallpaper

and heater that moans

in the like a tired swan.

The day no one will look

in your transparent stranger

belonging to no

not the children sledding on cardboard

through the frozen parking

not the waitress humming a song

you you could remember.

if she asked you your family

you could her their silhouettes

in a drop of

from Wingaersheek Beach

you in a jar by the window.

The ocean in its anonymizing recurs in a poem many find painful to read, In this poem, the father has himself reduced painfully, absurdly, when he suddeny move a lighted stove the floor and to try to keep it from with its claw feet, the stairs and setting fire to the He heaves to, saving the house, but serious burns in the process. is just the kind of freaky that appears in the better of Raymond Carver, and readers be reminded too of some of Carver’s poems. But Millar’s work is consistent, less willing to the slide into sentimentality. The ends,

Now he sleeps on, smelling of medicine,

deeper and wider, his legs

once ran The Hundred in ten flat

apart in the water. God

only how far from this world

the of his dreams have carried

the ocean breathing outside in the

its metal voice blistered fallen stars,

wits fans opening and opening.

Millar stays clear of fate, he doesn’t shrink revealing the odd and even grotesque of which the ordinary’s house is The disclosure of the particulars of our humble and in handmade craft is poetry’s of the moribund’s privileged speech, of final vocabulary, and Adam’s I began this review by a distinction between the possibly reach of elegiac practice and a salutary model of interpersonality. it’s clear the poet face discontinuity and death if he write of his past, Millar’s book avoids the somber of the first and the overreaching sentiment often befalls the second rendered in poetry. The privilege for he works in view of his own sources a third way: that of an muse. And that is good to live by (or die), as Nightbound clear:

Nothing to see or hear or onto,

blue rust away from your

dark mosses crumbling

your tongue, nothing to back,

curled on one side yur knees drawn up:

father, grandmother, uncle,

naming dead one by one.

Volkswagen Constellation
Volkswagen Constellation


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