PEG DUTHIE engages with
The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow by Jesse Millner
(Kitsune Books, Crawfordville, FL, 2009; www.kitsunebooks.com)
This may not have been the most appropriate book to bring with me to church on Easter morning. As a non-Christian, I do not personally celebrate Easter, but I was asked to help add volume to the choir, and I thought Millner's poems might complement my need for quiet time between the two services. Millner grew up in Southern Baptist territory, as did I, and he spent part of his young adulthood in Chicago, as did I, so part of my enjoyment of the collection has been in encountering the names of familiar streets (such as Versailles Road in Lexington, Kentucky, and Addison in Chicago) in the course of becoming acquainted with the preoccupations of a stranger.
Millner's poems tangle with his family's fundamentalist worship of God, his past worship of alcohol, and the permutations of wondering and wandering that seem very much present in his current incarnation as a writing instructor in Florida. (The collection is autobiographical in tone and presentation, so I will not attempt to discuss Millner and the "I" of the poems as separate entities.) The piece in the collection that made me squirm the most was "How Many Fat Baptist Asses Will Our Pied Piper Savior Pick?", which begins:
I want to apologize to anyone I've offended
by making fun of the sacred, but the god
I believe in has a cosmic sense of humor
as big as the Milky Way
or at least as large as a middle-aged Baptist's ass.
The poem is placed in the final third of the 185-page collection, amid other poems about religious complacency. It's clear within the context of the overall book that Millner is primarily taking aim at Baptist culture, albeit with nostalgic fork in hand: both "How Many…" and "What If Jesus Had Spent Forty Days in the Dessert?" dive into loving detail about the fried meats and sides and pies (oh, the pies) characteristic of southern feasts), and he speaks in an earlier poem ("The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow") about how "when I finally stop drinking, I tip the scales at 232 lbs, and the men in the treatment center nickname me 'Little Buddha.'" I can't help squinting at "How Many…" by itself, though, and wondering how many readers -- specifically those of us sensitive about weight issues, Baptist or not -- would find it more mean than meaningful.
Am I being humor-impaired? Quite possibly. I laughed when I first read that opening stanza, and quoted it to at least two friends. But on rereading, the poem comes across to me more as an extended cheap shot (it takes up three pages) -- I think of friends who are still taking round-trips to and from hell because of how overweight people are depicted and treated, I picture them getting ambushed by this poem, and I wince at the sound of the book getting thrown to the floor and the silence of it being abandoned.
Which would be a shame, because the very next poem, "Holy Numbers," is my favorite of the lot. It likewise starts out with intentionally shocking diction -- "I wrote a poem the other day that included a hearty 'Fuck Jesus'" -- but then proceeds from a sixth-grader's universalism ("even then, especially then / I knew a righteous god would not send my friends to hell") to take on a famous evangelist's challenge:
Billy Graham, in one of his crusades,
said that if there was only a 20 percent chance that hell
existed, why would you risk it?
A Christian friend asked me that same question in a lab in Danville, Kentucky, around twenty-five years ago. I don't recall if I managed more than a shrug at the time, but Millner's impassioned reply to Graham would have made a fine rejoinder, invoking "trains and humans and trees and streams and moons" in detail -- "if the wind sighs with the breathing / of cottonwoods down by the narrow creek, / the one that follows the tracks for miles" -- en route to his ultimate question:
Billy, isn't there at least a 20 percent chance
that the tangible is more real and beautiful
than any paradise with angels and gospel pie?
Food and faith are inextricably intertwined from the first poem to the last, sharing the pages with descriptions of excessive thirst and its consequences. In "Holy Tortilla!", the opening poem, "The woman who saw Jesus in the tortilla finally ate it, / thinking it was some kind of communion. Many of the pilgrims / at Lourdes drink too much of the water and their insides / glow at night…" In "Wild Wreckage," the prose poem that closes the collection, the author calls up "blackberries in a dented steel pot" and shotguns making soda-cans dance as his sentences drive toward one last visit to his memories of Chicago:
In the end stick a fork in me and watch the images roll out of my mouth…the day after I stopped drinking in 1986, how my world shook as sunshine flooded the north window of the treatment center and I looked out through bloodshot eyes and saw everything I had not seen before.
In between, Millner vividly spins and spills out memories of his relatives, his relationships, and his roamings-around, from the Chicago neighborhoods of the title. It's a chatty, confessional poetry that reminds me of John Brehm's latest, Help is on the Way (University of Wisconsin, 2012) -- both books feature middle-aged male writers who unhesitatingly and unsparingly catalog their flaws, limitations, and losses at length, trusting that their honesty and humor will keep reader on their wavelength; it helps that they both also articulate an awareness of being alive as an astounding gift, and demonstrate an eagerness to testify to that. In Millner's case, it includes documenting a lifelong fascination with matters of the flesh, ranging from an adolescent crush on Lesley Gore ("All-Stars of the Bible") to a party in present-day Miami:
I consider the waitress's
bare and beautiful shoulders,
the way the long black hair
smolders on her milky skin.
I think I'll bring more sex into my poems,
a naked person here, a naked person there,
here a naked person, there a naked person,
everywhere a naked person,
until my poem is nothing but breasts and penises,
vaginas and groans, until the bare bodies beg
in a rainbow of languages, until they come
in universals that truly reveal the human condition.
Visiting with the poems in The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow has ultimately been a mixed bag for me. There are stretches where I find myself admiring Millner's heightened awareness of how everyday language speaks volumes, such as in the poem "In that world," where "the women cooked supper / because only our Lord could make anything." I am charmed by "On the Saturday after the Rapture," in which news of a hurricane prompts the narrator to declare, "The dog and I don't want the world to end," and enumerate the pleasures said dog and man find in said world. But there are also pieces that could have used a more ruthless editor. "On South Beach, I Eat Meatloaf and Consider the Conquest of Mexico" tries to wink at its reader by starting its seventh paragraph with, "You're probably wondering how I could confuse meatloaf and the subjugation of an entire continent, how I could mention mashed potatoes and enslavement of millions in the same breath …" Well, no, what I'm thinking is that paragraph 4 was the keeper --
the memory of meatloaf at Manny's Pancake House on Cornelia in Chicago; even greasier than my mother's, the fat saturated plate would reflect back rainbows in the weak fluorescent light. And then was my first sober meatloaf at the Rainbow Diner in Evanston, Illinois. After an AA meeting on Main Street, I walked around the corner to the diner to drown my uneasiness in gravy and burger meat. To every season, there is a meatloaf.
-- and, damnation, man, even that paragraph went on a sentence too long. The rest of the poem should have been chucked. By the time it concludes with "I taste meatloaf and remember the sadness of my own life, inconsequential to the conquest of New Spain, but, nonetheless, it's my own," I've become the girl at the party trying to get away from the guy trying to impress me with how much he's in touch with his emotions.
But in this year of godawful rhetoric -- of popes attempting to muzzle nuns and Billy Graham's disciples striving to amend constitutions -- how heartening it is to read of a child stubborn enough to resist his Sunday school teacher's insistence that he accept Jesus as his savior, and of the man getting far enough past his demons to speak of "A Gospel Truth":
Genesis argues for our dominion
over the birds and fishes, I argue
for the small mercies of box turtles
on the black lake where water lilies
bloom their purple flowers
toward the blue
sky of late November.
Peg Duthie is the author of MEASURED EXTRAVAGANCE (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2012).