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Skinny Eighth Avenue
Stephen Paul Miller
Marsh Hawk Press, $15 (paper)
There’s no place for compression or fragmentation in Stephen Paul Miller’s third book of poems, which embraces a mode of “ongoing discourse” in order to narrate, argue, and inquire at length and in complete sentences. Miller’s expansive lines migrate across the page from margin to margin, an undulating motion that propels a breezy prosaic tone. This conversational fluidity and unstrained syntax enables him to address politics, current events, theoretical concerns, and personal experience with both critical acumen and wry self-mockery (as in one poem entitled “I’m Trying to Get My Phony Baloney Ideas about Metamodernism into a Poem”). Miller, who is also a critic, allows the work of analysis, interrogation, and synthesis to seep into the peripatetic observations of his poems, ruminating by turns on suburbanization, Jewish poetry, the American economy, and “George Whatever Bush.” One poem, “All Visual Materials Emit Countless Cartoon Bubbles,” riffs on a photograph of a boat by Jacqueline Goossens—“the corroding orange red of the hull’s bottom”—while meditating on the mechanisms of ekphrastic attention—the ways the photograph “is pushed / in and out of your view.” These critical forays are neither dry nor strictly cerebral, owing to healthy doses of humor and paternal affection—among the most important “visual materials” in the book are accompanying illustrations by Miller’s young son Noah, which add quirky appeal. Miller’s New York School influences, especially the tonal registers of Kenneth Koch, are palpable throughout the volume in two ways: through the inclusion of a wide range of cultural references and through the acoustic and semiotic play that enriches the poems’ essayistic surfaces. Yet both of these tendencies are also evidence of the endearing and observant presence of Miller fils. Young ears know that “if an elephant can camouflage / then a camel can elephantage,” and having a young mind nearby causes the train of thought to careen from Hannah Arendt and Islamicist mafias to Red Lobster and SpongeBob.
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