Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller
Orison Books, 2018
Reviewed by Maggie Blake Bailey
Ceremonial, winner of the 2017 Orison Book Prize as selected by Carl Phillips, is Carly Joy Miller’s first full length collection. She is also the author of the chapbook Like a Beast, winner of Anhinga Press’ 2016 Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize. Further work can be found in Adroit, Blackbird, Boston Review, Gulfcoast, and elsewhere. A contributing editor for Poetry International, she is also a founding editor of Locked Horn Press.
Ceremonial is a book that opens, unflinchingly, in the first poem “Dayshift as Conduit,” with loss, with the “dead brother full of teeth/ and ache.” Yet the loss remains, as does the dead brother: “Like a ghost, he paws/ my doors of vision./ Like a beast he grieves.” These are poems as interested in what is found as in what is missing, as interested in wreckage as in the violence that took place moments before, just outside the frame. Miller unabashedly claims both the territory of confession:“I’ve been that low” and the territory of lament, writing a “Threnody for the Goat’s Spine.”
Yet for all their terrifying intensity, their clear and valid claim to the land of the spiritual wrestling, they are also poems that delight. So much of what we love as children is built on nesting, on twists. Think of the classic matryoshka dolls and puzzle boxes that so captured our imaginations: something ordinary that opens into a small miracle. Just so, Miller’s poems first offer us what we already know how to love.
In “Nightshift as Horsebride,” the speaker claims: “I barefoot toward my lover.” In “Ceremonial Psalm,” the speaker implores “River my grief.” Words (barefoot, river) turn from noun to verb so tightly, in such a seamless pivot, the reader wonders why they have not always been used this way, even as we realize this move is entirely new.
In “Threnody for the Goat’s Spine,” the twist moves to the level of the line, when “The old lover appears, fully/ naked.” In “Dayshift as Conduit,” “My head/ is a grief.” Those five lines are the entirety of the stanza, the line break itself impossible to anticipate. If stanza means room and we can think of the poem as a house, here we are invited to also think of the poem as a body. In this way, the body contains marvels when opened. In “To Form a Prayer,” “Bees hum in your molars,” bodies within the body. Decay, like loss, shimmers with beauty, will not be ignored.
Just as the body contains, the body makes, and in the new language of making, no material is off limits. In “Nightshift as Doppelganger,” the speaker implores, “Loose to a field/ and scythe my chest open/ to three crestfallen horses,/ to opal,/ to evening/ varnished in skein./ To plum-reek./ To hooked/ bones purled.” If we are fearfully and wonderfully made, as claim the Psalms, Miller won’t let us have one without the other, not a contradiction as much as a mystery.
What is a sacred text, after all, if not the most loved puzzle, the least articulable wonder. Miller knows this well, riffing as she does on the puzzles and containers of spiritual writing: psalms and prayers, so that when there are no answers, there are at least patterns, through lines to follow, paths like deer trails in the woods.
The first section contains a series of “Dayshift” poems, the second “Midshift” poems, and the third “Nighshift” poems. It is hard not to think of the liturgy of the hours in monastic life, the prayers that move the day from matins to vespers. These poems pace the collection just as the monks gave order to their contemplation of the mysterious.
There are other echoes and threads as well: each section contains an italicized title poem (such as I’ve always been the girl in the wrong), each section has at least one letter poem (“Letter to Body Made Breath”, etc.), and of course, each section offers its own ceremonial. In a book willing to look belief in the eyes, Miller knows the value of repetition.
Like an illuminated manuscript, the cover art of this small horizontal book offers further touchstones. Stars gather and streak from the moon to a woman’s somber face, to the profile of a swan. Look again and see translucent feathers. Look again and see the flowers, roots and bulbs exposed, blooming but not anchored in any soil. Look again and see the thread winding from her white hand to the white neck of the swan she rides. These images reverberate through the text.
The cover art, “Ascension,” by Chris Roberts-Antieau is a work in “fabric applique and embroidery.” Of course. Even in two dimensions, that sense of texture and depth is evident. Some things foreground, asking to be touched, some linger in the background, haunting. In “Trouble,” the speaker claims “The sky” as “my dark ceiling.” Yet, in “Letter to a Body Made Breath” the speaker admits, “At the end/ of anything, a lift.” The world is both closed and open in Miller’s hands.
Here is the deep strength of Miller’s collection, perhaps best embodied in the haunting “War Song.” On first read, other poems will echo more readily. Like the punishing poems of Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands, poems such as “How ugly I’ve grown” rattle in the rib cage. The reader will find themselves, later, thinking: “But love, if you want to go/ wild in the china shop/ of my body, do” like a fantastic threat. That line is eminently quotable: a perfect, slightly terrifying valentine begging to be underlined.
Better yet, when the speaker of “Girl Gone Vile: Portrait” opens the poem claiming it is “A kind of winning, to be the big bright bitch full of darkness,” the reader’s agreement is nothing short of emphatic. But “War Song” defies quick annotation, neat dissection, even ready agreement. The book has already taught us to eschew those moves, anyway. Instead, “War Song” is the tangled heirloom gold chain on the dresser, glinting. We return to it, worrying the knot.
When the speaker implores: “Forgive my country, bread.” in the opening line, whose forgiveness is sought? When the poem concludes. “Forgive my country,/ your armory, the bread of war?”, how has the plaintive call been transformed? We will keep asking, each pass through offering up a little more clarity and even further doubt, just as contemplation of our nation, our wars treats us to both insight and bafflement.
Ceremonial opens with the epigraph: “Your world has broken upon me like a flood” from Rabindranath Tagore. This “your” may be hard to quantify, but in the ensuing poems, Miller seems to give the god of her poems that place of honor. Yet, as we read, we want to say the same back to the poems, to say to this deep, dark, glorious book: your world is breaking upon us all like a flood.
And when “Dayshift as Neighborhood Pariah” asks: “Who else can I be?”, we have already learned the call and response of this ceremonial, we know and want to say, as “Tikvah” does: “if you want to be saved/ save yourself but if you want me/ to sing, I will sing.”