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Stephen Paul Miller
Being with a Bullet
reviewed by Thomas Fink
Talisman House (Fall 2007). Language: English.
ISBN 10: 1-58498-054-4.
ISBN 13: 978-1-58498-054-4

This review is about 6 printed pages long. It is copyright © Thomas Fink and Jacket magazine 2008.

Poetry Suffuses Politics


Especially in his long poems but even in some of his shortest lyrics, Stephen Paul Miller applies a relaxed flow of heterogeneous attention to a confluence of philosophical, political, psychological, and aesthetic concerns. In “Unabstracted,” an early poem in Being with a Bullet that records his collaboration with John Cage, he asserts, “I like to/ say things that could be wrong” (24); he takes such chances in order to make unusual generalizations that could further associative thinking.


Material provided by his young son Noah during their dialogues is included, as the son’s wit sometimes corrects the father’s narrow focus: “‘Checkers is a good name for a dog!’ exclaims Noah./ ‘But Checkers was Richard Nixon’s dog.’ ‘So?’/ he replies, ‘Nixon was bad but Checkers is good.’” (62). The son “teaches” the dad that meanings tied to well-known historical contingencies should not reify signification and stop its play. When Miller addresses a particular historical situation, such as George W. Bush’s campaign tactics against John Kerry in 2004, he can be a cogent stand-up ironist:

paragraph 3

You vote to trust Bush
on Iraq then he blames
you for your vote
like a con man blaming you for
enabling him. He can only do
one thing but you should know better. (108)


The aphorism, “We want to change, we do change/ but change never takes” (109) nicely explains Miller’s frustration about the failure of his generation to realize the sixties’ emancipatory potential. In “Firewall,” the poet offers an only superficially surreal story of a political reporter trying to ascertain whether elements of the U.S. government are responsible for what the poet sarcastically “a relatively innocent/ ‘visas-for-terrorists’ program” designed “to hone the skills of friendly/ ‘terrorists’ by teaching them here,” as when the U.S. supported Bin Laden’s group during “the Soviets’/ Afghani debacle” (39). Thanks to the “innocent” program, the “terrorists” lost their quotation marks in 1993, 2001, and at other times.


Being with a Bullet also includes insightful poems on commerce, such as “Raphy” (about market forces involved in the transition from LPs and 45s to CDs and beyond) and the relation of sports to other endeavors in the long poem “Dunk” and “To Too.” “Theory” announces the “secret code to The Brady Bunch — one that makes it ‘queer’ and fun” (92); this poem is followed by “Sedgwicking the Stone,” an homage to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, major scholar of “Queer Theory.”


In the single-strophe “Squash Omelet” (86), Miller presents a brief, lucid (yet typically, for him, conversational) meditation on time and language:


“Time,” from the Old English, Ti-me, meaning     
to hang out, literally “to stretch” and “extended between events.”
“Begin the Beguine” comes on the radio.
                            Doesn’t the song say            
different times run parallel?
The Beguine plays and doesn’t play at the same time.
Two moments occupy the same moment   
like how prose can be poetry.
Two moments equal in every respect exist side by side  
but the Beguine changes everything. (86)


Etymological information stresses that time is not an abstract entity devoid of content, but depends on “events.” Miller, I suspect, is thinking of modern physics’ dismantling of common-sense notions of time with notions like parallel time that stem from the concept of spacetime. All this is simplified with his allusion to the much-recorded Cole Porter song about the associative psychological power of a slow rumba that originated in Martinique. The tune presents the belief that a new beginning of the beguine not only triggers a wonderful memory of passion and the (later broken) promise of eternal devotion between two lovers but (re)produces the original experience in its totality.


On the one hand, stung by a reminder of the loss of this original rapture, in the middle of the piece, the singer calls for the beguine not to be begun (again). On the other hand, at the end, s/ he casts aside this realistic reservation, longs for the original experience’s intoxicating presence, and so reverses the request. In this closing affirmation, the will to return to that earlier bliss “makes” a past event and a present one (which, in fact, may only be a memory, not a live performance) “run parallel,” as though embodying the same narrative unfolding with the same emotional effects. Miller’s response to the question of whether the “running” of the “parallel” can be converted into simultaneity is yes and no: the fact of temporal succession, in which absence and presence are distinguishable, is supported by habits of thought and experience, while “occupation” of one “moment” by “two,” in which absence may be just as present as “typical” presence, “feels” true.


A Proustian catalyst of memory, the “beguine” “changes everything” by eliciting desire, but, as the singer’s ambivalence suggests, the project of nostalgia can always be disrupted, just as attempts to prove a distinction or continuity between prose and poetry have long been troublesome. Doubleness itself — like the similarity and difference of the words “begin” and “beguine” — conveys the possibility of rupture and unification. And, as the poem’s end tells us, a “moment” of time is evidence of “movement,” which involves cessation of desired stabilities (like a privileged moment’s authority) due to continual change:


One wonders what a moment is anyway.
The online Thorndike Barnhart dictionary        
says that “moment” is a doublet of “momentum,”  
both derived from the Latin word for “moving” —  
the faster you move the more you stop. (86)


Etymology’s “doublet” (doubling) undoes the presumption that one can isolate a unit of time and thus control it: to begin is already to be in the middle. The title, “Squash Omelet,” suggests how the attempt to understand time involves both “squashing” aspects of experience into a compressed “space” and perceiving the effects of layering, including both hidden and manifest elements.


Not surprisingly, Miller’s extended treatment of being and time in this volume is a long poem, “Intelligent Dasein,” that grapples with the philosophy and politics of Martin Heidegger. (For a powerful treatment of Heidegger’s opportunistic uses of the work of his “model” poet, Holderlin, and Rilke, whom he critiqued harshly, in the philosophical articulation of “being” as positive future, see Anthony Stephens’ “Cutting Poets to Size — Heidegger, Holderlin, Rilke” in Jacket 32 [April 2007]). Like some other poems in the book, the lines of “Intelligent Dasein” have a zigzag quality that may seem to mimic the flow of associative thinking. First summarizing a contention by Jacques Derrida, “Heidegger’s/ different philosophers, one/ pre-, one post-3rd Reich” (116), the poet ponders the German philosopher’s suspect adaptability to different ideologies: “Heidegger/ adapts left,/ adapts right.// His bud of being slips through someone’s lapel” (116–7). The trope of “bud” suggests that the flower can be something cut off from its roots or fixed — being as unchanging essence — or something in the process of continual growth and elaboration (be-ing open to history).


Miller wants to discover whether Heidegger’s “intelligent” investigation of “Dasein” stresses temporality (“Zeit”) as liberation from calcified thought or whether its quest for truth, logos, or origin actually spawns rigidity of thought and dangerous politics. Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” calls for reality (and probably the imagination) to replace superficial appearance; at the beginning of a long, winding sentence, Miller’s reiteration of “be” echoes this poem: “Let be BE the elephant in the room/ easily lending itself to/ showing/ it IS/ the room thru/ gently deconstructive feats/ or BE the water in the air we breathe/ steaming/ FOR-ITSELF/ out/ of IN-ITSELF/ like salt from water/ and drinking/ the good clean/ existence with all/ nominally frothy/ preconscious being/ on the side — “ (117). “The elephant in the room” is the puzzle of Heidegger and Stevens, so interested in a sincere, process-oriented questioning of philosophy/poetry and poetry/poetics respectively, getting cozy with fascism and conservatism. While the philosopher adapted to differing political climates, the conservative Republican Stevens harbored racial/ethnic prejudices.        


The notion of being as “the room” suggests a form or container — such as an analytic structure — usurping its contents’ significance. “Feats” of deconstruction, which challenge boundaries between an inside/outside, undermine Western metaphysics but do not posit a retrieval of truth, whereas Heideggerian de-struction entertains the opportunity for such a retrieval. Thus, de-struction is “gently deconstructive.” Yet Miller parodies Heidegger’s convoluted syntax and elaborately repetitive vocabulary: Heideggerian “being” is so abstract that this “water” in our “air” evaporates — goes “out of” a discernible structure (“IN-ITSELF”) — in order to act “FOR [on behalf of] ITSELF,” or better yet, the philosopher’s interests. The absurd piling of “frothy” imagery elaborating on tropes of water and vapor indicates that this poetic encounter with Heidegger, whose unrelenting seriousness seems to require tweaking, may prove unable to deliver “good clean/ existence.”


The poem mentions how Heidegger “named names” during Hitler’s regime, effaced his debt of gratitude to Edmund Husserl, and failed to account satisfactorily for his embrace of Nazism. Miller sees “Heidegger’s master/ move” as turning “the primacy/ Husserl gives the turn of/ perception into the turn/ of being–where you/ flow more than take in–think/ more than drink, make more than take,/ everything thought from the ground up...” (123). At least for a time, the philosopher’s seedy worldliness overwhelms a sense of the sincerity of his pursuit of “being” in the world: “I as Heidegger take credit for where/ Husserl leaves me, removing my Being and/ Time dedication to/ the Jewish Husserl from its wartime edition,/ and otherwise/ dissing the poor guy” (125).


Nevertheless, Miller desires to examine “a lefty/ way to take all of H./ Let’s beeeeeee; Babe, Heidegger’s hip, though/ Temporarily in a weird cult called ‘the Nazis,’ but/ forgive him/ that. . .” (122—3). Strangely, the dippy hippy lingo dovetails with Heidegger’s notion of letting-being-be, of refusing philosophical coercion. And a believable recuperation of this troubling figure’s critical resources is best served, near the end of “Intelligent Dasein,” when Miller considers Heidegger’s philosophical interrogation of poetry: “If language is the house of being, can it be used to build itself?/ Martin puts/ his foot down./ ‘Poetry/ is the letting go of language’” (125). Heidegger’s physical gesture emphasizes the earth, ground of being. When Miller calls him “the greatest/ proponent/ of poetry’s/ worldly, even meta-worldly import,” it refers, I believe, to Heidegger’s questioning of how one and her discourse measure and are measured by the world.


To engage in “world-ing” is not to “possess” world. Skepticism about received language enables a letting go of words inadequate to the quest for worldliness: “Point is in some fashion the language we let go of is/ the bureaucratic nation-state/ that loses credibility/ in Germany post-WWII/ and the US post-Vietnam” (125–6). Much of the political poetry in Miller’s four collections demystifies the rhetoric of figures like Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. Poetry lets go of degraded (totalizing, universalizing) language, and, understandably, Miller talks about seeking a “replacement” (126), but his concluding sentences don’t go that far: “It doesn’t have to be the anticipated/ everything-all-at-once/ universe-pulsing/ mode. Wherever/ supplely strong and gentle intuitive light/ fills reason and poetry suffuses politics,/ Heidegger will say he’s sorry” (126).


Heidegger’s sincere apology for his Nazi allegiances is imagined on the basis of an attitude (not an argument) clothed in the old trope of “light” and various psychological attributes. The “light’s” strength could work against sentimentality and its suppleness could hold reckless idealism and other flimsy thinking in check, whereas generosity and intuition might prevent reliance on varieties of reason from stamping out whatever generative ethical, aesthetic, or conjectural possibilities exist outside their strictures. As aspects of Miller’s own poetry demonstrate, a-logical contingencies and analogies spark salubrious expansions of logic. For this poet, the kind of poetry that should “suffuse politics” flexibly utilizes available logics and intuitive processes in an ethos of dialogue inching toward democratic realizations.

Thomas Fink

Thomas Fink

Thomas Fink has authored five books of poetry, including Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008) and No Appointment Necessary (Moria Poetry, 2006) and two books of criticism, including A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth-Century U.S. Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001). With Joseph Lease, he co-edited Burning Interiors: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007). His poem, ‘Yinglish Strophes IX’ was selected for The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s) by Heather McHugh and David Lehman. Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.

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