We The Jury
by Wayne Miller
Milkweed 2021 $16.00
by D.S. Waldman, PIOnline staff writer
OUR CURRENT HISTORICAL MOMENT, our national identity, is a tessellation of events and people, past and present. To ignore that fact, to ignore personal and political antecedent, is to accept an incomplete perspective on who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going. That, in part, is what makes We The Jury, Wayne Miller’s fifth collection of poems, so astute and timely: it is a book of past and present, an American present as informed, and in someways defined, by the past. Many-minded and formally diverse, the collection guides its reader through a gauntlet of American moments, personal and political, past and present, en route to what amounts, for this reader, to a sort of reckoning with the American identity and, within that identity, a speaker finding their place.
Take “On Progress,” for example, the second poem of the collection, which begins with the plain declaration, My grandmother attended the last public hanging / in US history, and proceeds for six pages, eight numbered sections, to vacillate between the narration of, and meditation on, the public hanging of Rainey Bethea, a Black man convicted of rape, theft, and murder— convicted, it’s implied, by an all-white jury. The verse is lean, often journalistic, and makes leaps in tone and perspective, from one section offering details of the event itself—vendors would be selling / hotdogs, popcorn, and drinks—to a present from which the speaker writes, looks at archival photographs on murderpedia.org, and watches (in another window) the assassination of Saddam Hussein.
The narrative distance is chilling and, paired with the poem’s understated language, calls to mind such antecedents as Countee Cullen’s “Incident” (I was eight and very small, / And he was no whit bigger, / And so I smiled, but he poked out / His tongue, and called me, “. .”) and Natasha Trethewey’s poem of the same title, written a half-century later (It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns), poems that address violence against Black Americans by white Americans—and do so in a tone both level and distant. For Miller’s poem, chilling and effective in its own right, Cullen’s and Trethewey’s poems, among others, form a sort of ghost choir, just audible in the background of “On Progress,” between the lines, in the section breaks, inflecting the poem with a hauntedness particular to this country’s history of racialized violence.
It’s this effect, the fortifying of Miller’s poems by poetic antecedents, that opens We The Jury into a conversation with history. One reads the ironically-titled “On Progress” and, of course, thinks of our nation’s long history of violence towards, and suppression of, Black Americans, but also inevitably of more contemporary crimes and injustices. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Michael Brown. In this way, a poem like “On Progress” is a museum of mirrors: within the dioramas, the informational placards, we are confronted with ourselves and made aware, suddenly, how thin the veil is between past and present, between 1930s Kentucky and 2010s Ferguson, Missouri, between Miller’s grandmother—casual onlooker, passive observer—and ourselves.
We feel this again in “Carillon,” a much shorter poem, a lyric whose title requires a bit of work from the reader—the word carillon refers to the bells that ring out from a tower, a church tower generally, honoring a death or burial. Already, with the interplay of title and opening lines— Phones were ringing / in the pockets of the living / and the dead the living step carefully among—we have a strong suggestion of elegy, the ringing phones their own carillon.
It’s a beautiful and compelling, if general, scene, and “Carillon” would remain in the general, the unspecific, if not for extra-textual reference, commentary like this from Miller:
After the Pulse attack in Orlando, I read something about how cell phones
were ringing while police and medical crews moved through the horror
of the aftermath.
Knowing, then, that the dead in this piece are those massacred at Pulse nightclub—known as a safe space for the LGBTQ community—that the living are the police and first responders, and that in this scene the phones ringing are likely the result of loved ones calling to check in, to see if the now-dead are safe, is simply and completely devastating. It calls to mind the work of Mark Doty, his poem “Charlie Howard’s Descent” (Between the bridge and the river / he falls through / a huge portion of night), which deals with the tragic aftermath of violence against the LGBTQ community.
In Miller’s poem, the understatedness of the image is, in part, its potency, and how by poem’s end, This was / the best image we had / of what made us a nation (a nation defined, in these terms, by gun violence, violence against the marginalized, and by the phone call that was too late to save them, to tell them we love them). We the reader are again thrust into the poem. We are the living stepping among the dead. We are holding the phone, listening to the endless ring while no one, on the other end, picks up.
In “Carillon,” so much is implied (the elegiac bells, the gun violence) but not spoken explicitly, and by not naming “the thing” by letting it ghost and fritter, the reader is left to imagine and internalize, insert themselves into the piece, the history, and stand in the wide ripple of the poem’s last lines. It’s a different narrative strategy than Miller employs in “On Progress,” an explicit poem that leaps between past and present, narration and meditation. “Carillon” thrusts the reader into a single scene, a particular moment in history—and doesn’t let us out.
This is something we see throughout We The Jury—Miller working “in-scene,” allowing the reader into what are often sparse, carefully crafted moments that, whether personal or political (or often, perhaps inevitably, both), feel intensely intimate. In “After The Miscarriage,” for example, the speaker and their partner sit in the car just to get out of the house, lowering the window sometimes to stop the snow / from ceiling us in. Or in “Little Domestic Elegies,” a similarly minimal and personal poem, set in the aftermath of the 2008 housing market collapse—the speaker offers this on their family’s first cold morning in the new house: the clear world beyond us / became fogged / by the handprints / of whoever / had installed our windows.
The intimacy of this domestic moment harkens back to another Midwestern poet, Robert Bly, who in many poems wrote of quiet, intimate scenes from his family‘s farm in rural Minnesota (You have been working outdoors, / gone all week. I feel you / in this lamp lit / so late.). And within the context of Miller’s collection, containing as many explicitly political poems as it does, these sparse and personal moments allow the reader a moment to pause and digest, to digest the political through the personal, to better place the speaker within the greater political context the book is formulating.
And so, amid the rage and shame and despair stirred by the collection’s many overtly political poems—rightfully and necessarily stirred, given the content, the history—to allow space for a quotidian tragedy is to situate the speaker (ostensibly a white, straight, cis-gender man) within the distressed American tapestry—the personal within the political. That these poems are quiet and sparse, that they deal with more intimate moments and emotions (When we left / we put the kids in their seats and simply / backed out of the driveway / just as we’d done all those years), feels very much like an acknowledgment, on one hand of privilege—no one is being hung, here, or murdered out of hatred—and on the other hand, of personal loss—an unborn child; a family home. And these poems are offered as small brush strokes, brief and vulnerable, amid the book’s bigger, longer, weightier political poems—very much there but there in a way that takes up less room, less air in the room. “I am not at the center,” his poems seem to say, “but I am here.”