"the men repaint the chapel ceiling,
and I imagined they were painting
the ceiling of civilization, imagined
their work would fill in the blue"
-Wayne Miller, "The City, Our City"
More and more, cities define us. More and more, in books and magazines, one can read pieces on the new urban sprawl, the conflagration of slums, the mallification of America--of megacities and concrete jungles. Since the industrial revolution, we have to a greater extent pumped ourselves into these gridded landscapes; abandoning our rustic rural homes we romanticized in Pastoral and Georgic poetry, we added ornamentation and life to these urban dwellings.
Long has the literary mind been attracted to urban spaces. Baudelaire, most famously, saw worth in wandering aimlessly about their streets and alleys--even going so far as to create for Paris its own poetry, rougher and more explicit than those which came before, illuminating the unique and yet uncharted experience of city living.
In four new poems in the newest issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 4, no. 1; spring/summer), Wayne Miller expresses the both attractive alienation and nostalgic longings that modern and historic cities can provide. "I arrived on the City's/ surface," the second poem, "The City, Our City (X)," begins, "as a freckle arrives/ on one's skin." Miller's poems are gorgeous, magically brutal depictions of "The City." The City of Miller's poems is not New York, Chicago, London, Paris--or if it is any of these cities (perhaps Berlin?), or any city, the location is well shrouded in specificity, antithesis of any generally labeled location (such as the label of "Baghdad" to the average American voter). It doesn't particularly matter which city The City is, as it encompasses the human questions and observations found in the inhuman immensity of any city: "who/was there in the room behind me,/ and what did they see through me?" And, from within the city, there is constant ruminating about what lay beyond--the churches, wandering cows, pickups revving their engines. These things beyond the city seem half understood by the people in Miller's poems. While inside, "they loved the City for its details/ more than for its Grand Design."
These four poems--"The City, Our City (VIII)," the aforementioned (X) of the same series, "I've Heard That Outside the City," and "The City, Our City (XIII)"--are like small, personal essays of a city by a narrator who is able to feel every sidewalk, shop door, and eave of the place, "like an empty sportsfield/ sprouting wings." It is a haunted place, filled with a history of violence alongside pedestrian activity. We are attracted to it, Miller seems to say. We are caught up ceaselessly in its endless machinations. And, outside the city? "Out there, the cupped light/ of a house, or a bar, is the light/ of the entire world."