This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.The Poetry of Kei Miller
away from dark corners and we become,
each one of us, cartographers.’
The Cartographer tries to map a way to Zion
Between 2005 and 2019, Kei Miller published five books of poetry beginning with Kingdom of empty bellies (Heaventree Press, 2005), one collection of short stories, three novels, one book of essays and edited one anthology, New Caribbean Poetry: an anthology (Carcanet, 2007). His Carcanet and Peepal Tree Press books and his novels, from various publishers, have won important awards including the Forward Prize, in 2014, for The Cartographer tries to map a way to Zion. No mean achievement for a writer just turning 40. While Miller is Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, he is no ‘ivory-tower’ scholar. He maintains an online presence through his feisty and pointed blog Under the saltire flag: small essays about race, gender, literature and Jamaica.
The epigraph sums up the accomplishments of this Jamaican/Caribbean/World author. His prose – fiction and non-fiction – and his poetry, most recently in nearby bushes (Carcanet, 2019), do not avoid the murky ‘corners’ of life in Jamaica, racism in the UK and wider world, personal encounters with religion and gender issues. In navigating ‘away from’ and through our contemporary world, he is redrawing our literary maps. Key contemporaries include Marlon James, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo, Dionne Brand, Ilya Kaminsky, Danez Smith. While their post-colonial, post-independence, world-literature themes are familiar now – immigration, displacement, prejudice, racist and gender-based violence – it is in their exploration of ‘trans-genre’ forms that they challenge and lead the way in redefining and refreshing poetry and prose. Kei Miller belongs among these writers for whom the world is the audience even as they navigate various dark places and send their cartographic discoveries back to us.
Miller’s Writing down the vision: essays and prophecies (Peepal Tree, 2013) provides glimpses of his approach to writing in his responses to protest poetry, language, religion, political literature, his platform in the literary world. ‘The centre for me is no longer Britain… The centre for me is now the Caribbean.’
He writes ‘a poetry of the self is also a poetry about the community, because that is where the self exists’. He adds ‘I don’t want to lock myself in the tradition of protest poetry – or at least my own understanding of that tradition – because it often holds on to pain and anger and a righteous kind of passion simply for the sake of holding on to it’. And he says this, with which I particularly agree: ‘I tell my students to ask of every poem they write – where is the surprise and where is the music? These two things are integral for me.’ And this: ‘Emotions are hardly ever at the beginnings of my poems. I do believe that poetry, as a finished product, must swell with feelings – whether that be anger, or a poignant sadness, or triumph, or whatever really – but I’m not sure these feelings ever motivate me into poetry. What motivates me is an image I’ve thought of, or even more likely it is because I’ve found a small part of the language of the poem – and that little bit of language, that crumb, makes me hungry for the rest of it and so I work very hard to unravel the rest of that language.’
‘I grew up in the church’, he says; a persistent theme in his work. Pentecostalism, Revivalism, Rastafari and Kumina all have a part. About political literature, he comments: ‘I have my own politics of course… But I do not set out to write political literature and I absolutely do not care for that label.’ His poems exploit the continuum of language registers from standard English to Jamaican patois: ‘I’m not sure I agree that there is any single language of truth in my poems – or rather that one (patois) is privileged… the language I privilege in any individual poem will depend on the persona, the situation they are in, and the story the poem is telling.’
While I am mainly concerned here with Miller’s poetry, his essays expand the topographies of his work: ‘If you ask me why I write stories, or novels or poems, I would tell you it is because things that are real in my country, things that are factual, things that have happened and that continue to happen, have always had for me the quality of the unreal – the texture of fiction… Often times I find there is no need to invent or to create. There is only the need to see, and then to tell.’
His poetry is committed to the ‘nowness’, the ‘thisness’, the ‘here’ of the real, the factual, the past and present happenings he sees and retells. He does so in a voice that has found its familiar tone, its distinctness, a kind of empathetic distance, committed to a map-making that is also aware of, concerned with and moved by ‘the undergrowth, the understory’.
Kei Miller’s first collection, Kingdom of empty bellies, does not explore form or the thematic concentrations that come later. Church experience, with women at the centre, family chronicles, glimpses of slave history, and a dramatic sequence on the loneliness of men (‘Rum Bar Stories’) constitute the book. The poet’s relationship with faith recurs in all the books that follow, but here he hints at his departure from organized religion. In ‘Tongues II’ he writes: ‘Beware of the church woman; her tongue /sharp like serpent.’ Not loss of faith but a growing personal sense of its futility, as a believer’s song bangs ‘against the padlock of His heart’ (‘Off-key II’). And in a poem titled ‘Pentecost’ he writes:
To those of you
Asking bout my fire
Wondering if it gone out
Don’t worry – I just keep it low.
Already in this collection the speaker is ‘standing on the outside’ – the ‘outskirts’ – observing religion, family, society. He discusses his relationship with the religion in these and later poems in an essay entitled ‘Riffing of religion’ given as a talk at Kenyon College in 2012 and reproduced in his essays Writing down the vision.
Miller’s second book of poems, There is an anger that moves (2007), his first with Carcanet, is the first I read. I still remember my initial excitement at discovering this new writer. Many of the poems were concentrated in tight one-stanza lyrics, lines demanded to be underlined: a refreshing of poetry that startled and held my attention.
The book begins with reflections on his first years in the UK, presumably as a student, but the central themes are developed in two sections entitled The Broken. They mark the progression from the earlier book and life. The writer he’s becoming strives toward honesty, his true voice, true self:
If I were to write honestly
I would write about fat,
about close fitting linen shirts
that once hid the soft fact of breasts.
I would write about the love
of men and the fear of stones
which in my country is the same thing…
I would tell you how for months
I stopped writing or opening doors
because it was me, on the other side,
wanting to be let in. (p.22)
I was avoiding my voice,
full and divided like cupboards:
the school I left,
the way I gave up on God,
the way I gave up on drums
which is the same thing…
In a climactic way ‘The Broken (I)’ ends with the declamation of a transformed caterpillar breaking free of its cocoon:
So I break. I break the rule. I break
the ground we will dance on;
I break my mother’s heart…
… I break the body, the bread, the words.
I break the ceiling. I break the bone and the jaw
and the habit of hiding. I break the stone. I break the curse.
They are broken. I am written.
The poems of Broken declare the necessity of brokenness, of breaking, if the new and real life is to appear. If he is to be ‘written’. In ‘The Broken (II)’, we find:
Maybe broken is just the same as being…
Or maybe broken is the way we love.
As if meeting someone else, one soul searches
The other for openings – a way to enter.
… broken is the only way light will enter.
We glimpse too a breaking loose from the regular forms, but generally the stanzas have a traditional feel even as the themes and images, rooted in a confessional style, speak with a new assurance.
With A Light Song of Light (Carcanet, 2010), the extensions of form – prose poems, stanzas that play with sound effects – mark an advance from the earlier books. There are fewer concentrated, confessional lyrics. The book is divided into two main sections, ‘Day Time’ and ‘Night Time’. Some of the poems are several-angled meditations on Light and on Song. The Jamaica Singerman, ‘a member of Jamaica’s road gangs in the 1930s’, who sang while others broke stones, is central to several sequences. One poem, ‘Noctiphobia’, is revised and imported from Kingdom of empty bellies. A longer prose-poem, ‘A Smaller Song’, will find a place, reworked, in Writing down the vision, and find an even more concentrated echo in in nearby bushes in a poem titled ‘A Psalm for Gay Boys’. Jamaica, in setting, folk myth, language, is central.
This is transitional work. It seems like a mid-career pause as the poet consolidates the beginnings, shapes the fragments left from the ‘bruising’ and breaking chronicled in There is an anger that moves. The voice is familiar, as are the recurring themes, and the poetry workings settled. The position, in terms of workmanship and assurance, is held, even as the poet surveys the route ahead and hints at the next stage.
In 2014, The Cartographer Tries to Map a way to Zion won the Forward Prize. The title poem, consisting of 27 sequences, runs through the book, interspersed with related poems that speak to the rhythm of Jamaican/Caribbean speech and poetry, and comment on place names which reflect ‘the strange / ways and names of this island’. In this book begins the catalogue of spaces, fauna and flora which continues in the latest book. And Miller experiments further with the form of poems on the page. The personal themes and concentrated shorter lyric runs find place in the dialogues between the cartographer and the rastaman.
The cartographer’s map-making and the rastaman’s commentary provide metaphors for efforts to understand a colonized people, their home-places, their philosophies. The cartographer brings a foreign, secular, scientific approach to bear on the contours of physical spaces; the rastaman tries to show the lived life and history of his people. From the rastaman’s point of view, the work of the map-maker ‘is to make thin and crushable / all that is big and as real as ourselves; is to make flat/all that is high and rolling; is to make invisible and wutliss / plenty things that poor people cyaa do without…’, the imperial mandate and endeavor all over again. The cartographer, empiricist, rationalist, denies this: ‘What I do is science. I show/the earth as it is, without bias. I never fall in love. I never get involved/with the muddy affairs of land…I aim to show the full/of a place in just a glance.’ The rastaman replies: ‘draw me a map of what you see / then I will draw a map of what you never see / and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose? / Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?’
A parallel theme, interwoven with the dialogue between cartographer and rastaman, is that of language, the metre of speech and by extension, poetry. Referencing two Frenchmen who set out on a seven-year expedition to measure the earth, the poem ‘Establishing the Metre’ ends: ‘And foot / by weary foot, they found a rhythm / the measure that exists in everything.’ Almost unobtrusively, Miller touches a metaphysical chord that finds an echo in the end-of-book discussion on Zion between cartographer and rastaman. And ‘foot’ and ‘rhythm’ and ‘measure’ (or metre) of course speak of prosody and scansion.
Early in this book, in ‘Quashie’s Verse’, the poet asks rhetorical questions. This poem is laid out so that the lines represent the jar which is referenced in the poem: ‘But what now / is the length / of Quashie’s / verse? So what now shall Quashie do – his old / measures / outlawed, and him instructed / now in universal forms, perfected by / universal men who look nothing / and sound nothing / like Quashie?’ These questions are rhetorical because this poet and earlier Caribbean poets have ‘spoken back’ to the universal men, using their own nation languages confidently.
The language of mapping and the mapping of language are linked themes as Miller searches out ‘the brutal architecture of history’. As the cartographer begins to understand the deeper issues, he says to the rastaman ‘We speak to navigate ourselves / away from dark corners and we become, / each one of us, cartographers’.
The ‘small island’s latitude / of mysteries’, its geographies, its ‘roads that constrict like throats,’ and the challenges of the rastaman, lead the rationalist to concern himself with Zion, ‘a place / that is not quite a place’. And he is led to the perennial philosophy of Rastafari and their view of Zion. He cannot plot his way there in the manner of the imperialists, he cannot scheme or trick his way there, but will ‘have to walk good and trod holy’ through many tribulations.
In choosing the Rastafari life-view to counter the Western scientific and political approach to colonized peoples, Miller recognises the twentieth-century Rastafarian movement, born in the Caribbean, as a repository of the roots of our languages and their metres, our folk wisdom, our understanding of community and history, our own valid ways of knowing and reasoning, our home-grown (though Bible–influenced) religion with its humanism and judgement. In section xxiii of the title poem, Zion is revealed not just as a place, even an inner space, but also, ‘Zion is a reckoning day /… a turble day… an accounts settling day’. In section xxvi, the rastaman gives a final sermon on how to get to Zion. Not exploitation, not superior attitudes and prejudices, not capitalist commodification, but ‘goodness and rightness and, of course, upfullness’.
Ever since I heard Kei Miller read from his new book during Carifesta in Trinidad and I read the book itself, in nearby bushes (Carcanet, 2019), I have said that it is his strongest collection. Even stronger than The Cartographer tries to map a way to Zion. A new book throws fresh light on earlier works and shows us even more clearly its accomplishments. The new book is a mature work, grim theme admittedly, and he continues his exploration of form. As always, Jamaica is his muse, his base, centre, the ‘here’ of all his citations – its named places, language, fauna and flora, history, its troubled present.
Among Kei Miller’s strengths is how, in a tightly focused way, he brings image and idea together, with the right balance of feeling, often in short, lyrical stanzas. Increasingly, as he develops, each collection forms a single poem of related sequences. At the same time, each book advances on from the one before, themes and forms developing: Jamaica and its history, fauna, flora and language from which all else follows; his family and his loves; a strong religious impulse that animates his reflections on his early church-life experiences, Afro-Jamaican spiritualities, Rastafari; and, coming to a head in in nearby bushes, his confrontation with the violence that plagues Jamaica.
In nearby bushes consists of three sections: ‘Here’, ‘Sometimes I consider the names of places’ and the title poem, a 22–part sequence. It can be read as a long-poem sequence, with the earlier sections leading to the climactic, concentrated final section. The barely-tamed landscape of Jamaica, principally rural and bush, is the setting of his exploration of ‘the undergrowth, the understory’ of Jamaica:
…Well, my dear,
they are here – in the complication of roots, in the dirtiness
of dirt. Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica?
Well here are the stories underneath.
The book opens with real-time quotes from a Jamaican blogger and a Professor commenting on the term the nearby bushes. In the light of what follows, I wonder if Miller was raising grim, grave-yard irony with the reproduction of these public statements. This is followed by what can be described as an epitaph, giving the names of two dozen persons who had been killed violently and whose bodies had been found in bushes. They had been murdered between 2007 and 2019. If I got the names right, there were ten females and fourteen males, aged between nine and seventy-two. The page ends with ‘& these are only some’. Like many of his contemporaries, Miller’s poems find their inspiration in harsh realities faced by many in our societies. He says in an essay ‘there is no need to invent or to create. There is only the need to see, and then to tell’.
In the poems of the ‘Here’ section he probes the unchanging ‘hereness’ of place as one might investigate a palimpsest for the first outlines. These are the human, civilizing movements over the neutrality of the space; the flora, minutely described, of the place; the fauna of wild deer which leads him to parallel the foreign deer marooned in the Jamaican hills with African maroons; but, also, ‘There is much that blossoms in these bushes / & much that rots, like Jamaican ladies of the night – / I no longer mean the flowers… Here where blossoms the knife, / here where blossoms the blade, / here where glistens the blood’.
Even while Kei Miller draws the natural vegetation, the potential menace, the brutality covered in undergrowth, the present reality, he ruminates on the transcendent aspects of space and time founded on ‘here’. He echoes the familiar words at the beginning of Four Quartets: ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past. /… what might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.’ This is clear in ‘Here that was here before’, which shows technical, almost gymnastic virtuosity as he plays with a thinking-through of language that shares the properties of physical boundaries, including distance and time. The Eliot-type meditation on time, space, place, take him to a primeval, metaphysical vision rooted in nature, the undergrowth stage for all he will reveal: ‘Here that is here in the now / & that was here in the before / & that shall be here in the after / that shall hold our bodies, our cities, our outdated stamps / in its endless cycle of green & brown & flower & thorn & stone.’
The final poem in the first section is among the most well-wrought in the book. ‘A Psalm for gay boys’ is inspired by a Facebook live testimony of a seventeen-year-old boy. It parallels the poem in A Light Song of Light called ‘A Smaller Song’, dedicated to writer Thomas Glave, which re-appeared in Miller’s essays of 2013 in an edited version. Jamaica is notorious for its brutal treatment of the gay community, and this poem resonates with the De Profundis of Psalm 130 and the pleas of the psalmist of Psalm 46 and similar Biblical cries from the heart. In the format of a prose poem, the lines are separated by dots in bold face. The boy is in a valley of the shadow of death where the images evoke cursings, chasings, lynchings, moving the poem beyond the persecution of gay men to encompass the horrors of racism, refugee displacement and other forms of abuse. The ‘here’ of the nearby bushes, the undergrowths, thorns, overshadowing trees, is a ‘limboed land. a place between places. the ends of the earth’, a here that encompasses the anguished ‘here that is the Hear my cry. O Lord. My Lord. My God. Attend now to my needs’. It is an empathetic poem that raises real suffering above the politics of oppression that feed the news.
The second section of the collection, ‘Sometimes I consider the names of places: 10 micro-essays’, was published in full in PNR 249. The prose poems consider the ironies that occur when colonisers rename places, the psychological intention behind new names, the resistance of landscapes, the efforts ‘to make territories out of maps, as if to tame the too-wild landscape’, the neutrality of ‘the here that could be anywhere, and every place… wrapped by an unbothered sky’. He asks of the colonial, imperial exercise: ‘What did it matter, our own names? / We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place.’
In these poems he weaves together ideas of ‘here’, providing an intense focus to ordinary spaces – unremarkable, ordinary bush and hill – where tremendous, consequential things take place, including foreign invasion, slavery, murder. Always aware of the immanent, he reflects ‘To consider the nearby bushes – is to consider the nameless places, or perhaps the placeless places’. It is to consider also ‘the violence of place’.
The title poem forms the last section of the book with its profound, intense meditations on place, space, history, violence. It will be the drum-and-bass dub-beat finale of a reggae that digs deep into night, into the silent thoughts of a late-night dance hall where anguish, sorrow, pain, loss are rocked away from one spot on the floor. It is the drum-and-bass beat of grief that can find no answer.
Miller’s concentrated style in short stanzas works well. He speaks with the voice of a young woman murdered in nearby bushes. The poem begins with a newspaper report on the murder of the twenty-year-old who is not named. The report is repeated several times using a technique Vahni Capildeo has identified as ‘erasure’. Writing in a 15 September 2019 review in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, Capildeo says: ‘ “Erasure poems” start with a “found text” from another source and selectively blank out most of it. This creates a new poem by leaving a spaced-out set of evocative letters and words. Miller’s book of memory plays with erasure, but resists blanking out his sources.’
It is a poem not only about murder, the inability of society to protect the vulnerable, the unimportance of the poor who become victims; it is also a meditation on the experience of death as the poet imagines it: ‘How unspectacular, this business of dying, as if any and anybody could do it.’ ‘And death which had seemed a thing so dark and far away, is / revealed now as splendid, and here – … you had not imagined death as a thing / so wide, so full of acres and sky.’ Faith is powerless before such unreasonable, gratuitous violence: ‘the useless faith of your grandmother who even now / prays that you are coming home… But you will come as a great rattling of things…the way your grandmother’s faith will become rubble.’
Section x brings together, on a final, penultimate note, the earlier contemplations of ‘Here’. ‘That of all places, you should end up here. Here where are the severed heads. Here where are the broken hymens… Here where is the never-reach-home… Here where are the stories lost in the understory… Here where we are pulled into things we cannot speak.’ Because of the violence of place (to which these islands are no stranger,) the nearby bushes, the croton hedge, the dark garden behind the house, a stretch of canefield – a here that could be everywhere, anywhere, nowhere – become the centre of fear-filled lives, the understory where the night, the danger blossom.
Each of Kei Miller’s collections has developed in themes and forms, with varied explorations of Jamaican places, the island’s history, language, religions, landscape. I do not find Kingston the city much in view. He does pass through other cities, but they are not given great attention. He treads the rural roads: ‘The cow roads and cobbled roads / the estate roads and backbush roads’, his people the female worshippers of the small churches, his family, especially mother and aunts, the rural poor, lonely men, abused women and men. After There is an anger that moves, the confessional tone of that book translates into a more nuanced observation of the lives, suffering and deaths of others.
To quote Miller back to himself: ‘every language, even yours, / is a partial map of this world’. He is one of today’s cartographers, his poetry offers to our world a map of its troubled ways, a vision of its ‘undergrowth’, its ‘understory’, which can help, if the coordinates are noted, to steer us clear of the overwhelming and too-prevalent ‘violence of place’.
This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.