Review of Oriflamme, by Sandra Miller
(Ahsahta Press, 2005)
Many contemporary poets are incorporating typography as an essential part of the craftsmanship of their poems, in effect creating a visual prosody that is still largely unexamined and ungoverned by the token ‘rules' of traditional prosody. Perhaps such poets are acting instinctively, led by the growing emphasis on vision in western culture. Perhaps they are incorporating various influences, such as the Futurist, Modernist and Surrealist interest in typography; techniques from the compositions of non-objectivist painting; and theoretical bases such as aesthetics and post-modernism. Regardless of the impetus, how does this instinct enrich the poems' existence, both as a text and a physical presence?
During a discussion of Williams' poetics of the variable foot in Stephen Cushman's William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure, Cushman states that “perhaps 'time' is not a matter of duration but a metaphor for attention and expectation” (83). The importance of time in Williams' poetics emerges from his use of the white of the page in shorter lines, which he states should be given equal time as longer lines that necessarily take up more objective time in reading them. As Williams contends, “what else is verse made of but ‘words, words, words'? Quite literally, the space between the words, in our modern understanding, which takes with them an equal part in the measure.” (Williams, qtd. in Cushman, 68). This notion of blank space requiring a certain duration or weight is akin to what Mallarmé addresses in the preface to Un Coup de Dés when he states that “the ‘whites'. . . take on importance, strike one first of all; verse requires white, like silence around it.” Notably, the white is not silence, but like silence, because, as Cushman asserts, there is no duration to the white of the page: it is outside of quantifiable time, outside of the measure of language, and requires no moment of pause. So if this silence is metaphorical, both in time and quantity, and is meant to indicate “attention and expectation,” it could be said to function as a visual compass, affecting the reader by sharpening one's attention to the place—the text—within the space of the page. By leading the reader's eyes to the next typographic place, the spatial disconnection of language imparts a sense of the poem navigating its own void, if only, at times, to heighten the physical construction of its own being.
Sandra Miller's Oriflamme explores the possibilities of typographic expression, the poems most frequently taking shape as visual packets of text spread across the page. Miller seems to have taken up Olson's notion of composition by field with the intention of heightening the physicality of the words themselves—their length, their shape, their various artistic qualities. The result is a collection that is compelling from first glance. Oriflamme is a book that is attentive to its image, and Ahsahta press has given sufficient space for the field in Miller's composition. For example, the poem “sordid intimacy of eiderdown : traversed by waves.” is printed twice, once with the font the same size as the rest of the book, allowing the poem to cover two full pages. Immediately following, the poem appears again in a smaller font, condensing the poem onto a single page. The reprinting emphasizes the poem's visually segmented nature, lessening the reader's attention to the words themselves. At the same time, the second appearance of “sordid intimacy of eiderdown . . .” provides what seems to be an aerial image of the poem's terrain, tracking the stanzas' progression as they weave between the edges of the page. We are reminded that the poem is a visual presence as well as a form of address, an impression received from multiple sources of information.
The poems in Miller's collection communicate through segments of text that resist a narrative, and yet build upon themselves, creating a sense of situational weight—partially because they are so fragmented. The poems remain held together by the distinct impression of a unifying speaker, a voice assembling what is known of the world and the words that create it, both of which seem to dissolve and reappear. Consider this section of “alarums.”:
from the boîte
when the rushes
what if you were still it
There is a direct address here, language that reaches toward a you, which gives words such as “trouble” and “alarum” a sense of urgency. The segmented blocks (or “boîtes”) of text call attention to the distance that must be breached by this call to arms, while simultaneously indicating the plural form of the title, indicating a multiplicity of time and place that seems to correspond to the poem's typography. And yet this notion of indicating moments through aesthetic means is somehow complicated by a phrase a few lines later, presented in quotations, that states: “the illusion that it was the place / that matters”—a loaded comment in a poem that is quite palpably concerned with the placement of words on the page.
Proximity, space, and the navigation of distance are themes that recur throughout Oriflamme . Kissing—an act of momentary closeness—appears several times in the collection, yet only in absence or negation: “until never been kissed,” “messieurs / sort of kissed / ground shook ground,” “no one kissed me where,” “she says she / never kissed / you there.” The visual fragmentation of many of Miller's poems creates units that could touch, promise the possibility of unity, and in a sense, when read, they kiss each other through the white space of the page. Of course the mouth's role in kissing is central to Miller's imagery as well: it is where we speak from, and yet while communication is often tied up in the organ of language, it is not always shackled to the contingencies of logic.
Poems, such as “alarums.,” that are invested in composition by field work largely due to their proximity to each other, their ability to build upon each other. One way that Miller accomplishes this melding is by having the boundaries between many of the poems bleed into each other. Several poems are untitled, with little to indicate whether or not they continue from the previous poem, or should be considered somewhat separate. As the second, untitled, poem of the collection states:
and i accretion
this is my face
is my foam
on the grey sun
what color are you
This “color” (if considering Miller's use of accretion as a “face,” as an expression) is the color of emotion and the color of communication. Here language becomes impressionistic, building upon itself to create the presence of an individual. Miller's interest in color also resonates with the title of her collection, which is a battle standard, specifically referring to the medieval flag of the Abbey of Saint-Dennis, which is composed of red and orange cloth: vibrant hues that resonate with the impassioned action of conflict that is both destructive and aimed at progression. In Miller's world, words are akin to color and passion, and (like an alarum) are a call to arms—a call to the urgency of paying attention—as they meld the aesthetic and the human.
Miller's is by no means focusing solely on visual elements in her poetry, which is also deeply invested in wordplay and aural constructions. At times she brashly delights in the sound and assembly of language, such as in “My sympalograph must be a many pointed cyanosis.”:
‘Hello lexical artifact. How are you doing?’
Ni om ba ge twa. Na fon go li.
Convivial gaol heavens me.
The telic patterns the olive.
Is’ ten de na wo. Tu le le.
A poem such as this breaks up language, while pointing at the human in it. A lexical artifact has its own identity, and as playful as this is, there also seems to be an element of seriousness in recognizing the human within the structure of language, a structure that can seem both able to bind (a “gaol”) and to divine (“the telic patterns the olive”). As Olson states in “Projective Verse,” “ all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use” (244), and these bits of speech—or are they words?—could possibly be made sense of by simply sensing them: their rhythms and their particle-nature that allows them to build and be built.
Miller's poems are meant to be read aloud, their sounds often creating a sense of understanding, a pattern all its own: “for the ones Who cannot dance / fugue spoken here.” The fugue created is a succession of syllables playing on one another, interlocking according to a different impetus than either logic or sound can fully account for. Olson calls the syllable “the smallest particle of all” (241), an atomic unit on which an idea is built. His warning, to those poets to whom “both sense and sound were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable” is that “to step back here to this place of the elements and minims of language, is to engage speech where it is least careless–and least logical” (241). Oriflamme often delves into that territory of exacting confusion, a confusion that seems less unplanned than instinctive. The question arises as to how much these poems rely on theory (which is deeply rooted in Olson's “Projective Verse”) in order to be rewarding. Some of the more “traditional” poems in the book, or at least ones that are less concerned with composition by field, are often more self-sufficient than others. “Competing light sources.” is one such poem:
2 women, of equal frequency, pursue the inner mosquito.
A polar bear, an elk, a braided wanderesse, sharing one roof.
The bottle that drank the shore. And the lover who waited. Conserved sound.
Many many many moons. One gauze lemon dress, on a line, in the breeze, over Nebraska.
The speed of the windows. The speed of the whistle. The arrived.
The tattoos left by their arms on your arms. The vacant Oh’s. Not roses.
A black dog under a pink moon. The black dog under the black moon.
Man in the black harbor. Say so.
In another example, “Sirens from a wedding.” begins:
1. To call hunger back 2. into the room where she 3. left her three wild hairs was wishing itself on us and we who are full of refusal; 4. To call a three-tongued woman is 5. telephone, no, telepathy 6. dark speech. 7. You and your gap-toothed girl led the party hat day, boy you left the party a thirst. And 8. left us holding all those colordresses in 9. our mouths, with our 10. bodies.
In both these poems the verbal and sequential play are still present, and in “Sirens from a wedding.” the text is still logically fragmented by the numbers inserted within it. The poems do not depart from the thematic concerns of the rest of the book, and in a sense, encapsulate them with a more immediate affect. However, I do not mean to say that immediacy is ultimately more rewarding. The accumulation that builds up throughout Oriflamme heightens one's attention to ideas behind many of the visual and aural wordplay throughout the book, and they create a complex constellation that becomes increasingly more compelling. The poems in Oriflamme are, in many ways, “difficult,” but not closed or smug. As Olson says, poems that are well composed keep their “proper confusion” (244)—something Miller has left precise and intact.