New Issues, 2006
Wayne Miller’s first book, Only the Senses Sleep, is a city shrouded in ice like a “basket of broken glass,” an upstairs apartment with blank walls, and a desk drawer filled with living watches and black and white photographs. Drawing on international poets, photographers and artists, Senses is an intellectual study in contemporary society. But these poems are not over-thought or over-educated; each detached observation has an underlying emotional resonance, sometimes obvious, sometimes only hinted. This is one of Miller’s talents: to balance seemingly contradictory elements. In this collection, Miller composes an urban landscape that somehow feels sparse and minimalistic even as he piles layer after layer of detail in his reader’s lap.
While many first books appear to be a collection of disparate poems gathered and held together by little more than a cover, Miller’s work is a cohesive whole. His use of the colors and images of winter; snow, ice, and muted blues (like “breastmilk blue” in “Sunrise Study”) and grays (smoke, ashes, fog, the “dull gray crisscross / of moonlit tracks” in “Night Stop”) throughout Senses help each poem, even those with dissimilar subject matter, to build upon those around it. There is a chill in almost every poem, a billowing wind that makes readers want to grab the nearest sweater. And while the world of Senses is often frigid, as seen in poems like “November Wind” and “Ice Storm,” the speaker is not. The iced-over landscape allows for subtle access to emotions, as seen in here: "buried stone walls he must remember / into being. // Yesterday’s cold East River / is extant and unbreathable— // dark air in a forever /snow-sealed barn." ("Vermont")
Thankfully, Miller doesn’t leave his readers out in the cold. He invites them in, wraps them in a faded afghan, and leaves the room so they can snoop through his dresser drawers. Senses is a catalog of small things, the clutter that gathers in a room: sand, wax, blank paper, pay stubs, books that “open and close like valves.” What makes these groups of items more than mere lists is the associative quality that Miller lends them. The willingness to play with syntax and the ability to gather unlike objects in a logical manner allows the random groupings to work on multiple levels, as seen in “Elegy”:
Your phone number on the fridge
—your voice—or the baby teeth
boxed in your mother’s closet.
Or the stack of letters you left
beside your mattress, half-
covered by your blanket.
Or your blanket.
If there’s anything to critique in Senses (besides the frost-bite), it would be Miller’s tendency to leave things open-ended. Some readers may be surprised to turn a page and find a new poem instead of a final stanza, and in many of those final stanzas, Miller chooses to end with a dash instead of a period. It’s clear that his intention is to create suspense or to bring readers back to the poem for a second or third reading, but there is a sense of frustration that no conclusions are provided. Still, Miller seems to have crafted these endings as carefully as any image throughout the book and to be aware of exactly what it evokes in the reader: “I can’t / understand what I’ve learned, // except figuratively. // And why that isn’t enough.” (Elegy)