Desert Teeming with Life: Review of Without Compass by Benjamin Miller

Benjamin Miller. Without Compass. New York: Four Way Books, 2014. 72 pp. $15.95, paper.

In Benjamin Miller’s engrossing debut, his speaker lives in what one title calls the “Wake of Avoidable Tragedy.” I hear only one speaker, because the voice is so consistent from poem to poem. Stuck in a psychological desert, he occasionally doubts that a way out exists and feels as if he’s without a compass. More often, though, he’s aware that his compass may be broken, pointing in the wrong direction. Or that he can only properly use the working device—know where to go and why—after honing his ability to exist in uncertainty, what Keats called negative capability. “One-eyed crabs clung to my fingers,” he says, “And I named them. This is wait. This, delay.” He puts the thing away to be intentionally without compass but then glances at it from time to time. Eventually, he trusts it.

Like most deserts, his internal landscape is actually teeming with fascinating life. I refer to the many individual emotions that he manifests. He often dwells in a state of mixed emotions, which is difficult to describe without poetry but familiar to many of us. In “Terminal,” he says, “Morning depresses like a signet into wax. / Breakfast depresses like a doctor on the tongue. / If they could bottle this emotion, I would buy it.” Although he may be depressed, he experiences a positive feeling associated with the tactile pleasures of sealing a letter and receiving care. Whether he’s Miller, Miller’s avatar, or neither, this speaker is a complex and realistic persona, and he’s uniquely attuned to the paradoxical. He says, “I found the perfect flaw and brought it home.”

Without Compass initially seems a strange title because, well, Miller obviously knows what he’s doing. His is a remarkably cohesive first book from which any aspiring poet, especially one putting together a manuscript, could learn. It’s a bit like Cynthia Cruz’s The Glimmering Room, which contains multiple poems entitled “Strange Gospels.” Three of Miller’s poems are entitled “Interview” and are comprised of questions and answers. Two of his titles begin with “Persistence,” four with “Field Glass.” Seven of his poems are entitled “Desert.” Almost a sonnet, each desert poem has two quatrains and then a couplet providing something of a turn. The last line of one such poem becomes the first line of the next, sometimes with slight variation. “Before morning came, a tapping” becomes “Before, morning came tapping.”

This poetry reminds me of how dunes reform and the little-known fact that, in the wind or underfoot, they can sound audible notes. They can sing. Here, too, are music and changing forms galore. There’s plenty of internal slant rhyme. Sometimes, it’s so colloquial—such as “there were more”—that we’re likely not to notice it. What’s even harder to miss than that? Miller takes part in the poetic traditions of appropriating the religious and connecting the Bible to contemporary experience. In the Bible, the desert is for exile and exodus, spiritual searching and testing—terms that describe some of what Miller’s speaker experiences. He doesn’t use those particular terms but does frequently articulate himself with religious diction, such as “absolution.”

Miller directly engages with the Bible, as do many other poets. Whereas some—Carl Dennis is a prime example—write clearly and discursively in paragraph-like stanzas, Miller plays more with shape and ambiguity. His “Isaac After the Mountain” recasts parts of Genesis in elegant enjambed couplets with the second lines indented:

Why did he leave? Every afternoon
I stand out in the fading light,

Watching for his camels.
This, I hope, is prayer.

Longing for his beloved brother’s return, Miller’s speaker may take on the voice of one Biblical character referring to another, or the poem may invent a character not mentioned in the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac. Miller leaves these matters open to interpretation.

Other allusions and resemblances, intended or not, are also apparent throughout Miller’s poetry. Like Dickinson’s, his poetry tends to be delightfully irreverent, as in “Checklist for a Savior”: “Miss your deadline to appear; / Make no apology. Appear.” Language such as “mariner and bandit / of a God” echoes Dickinson calling God a bandit, and a burglar, and other names. Phrases such as “ampersands of night” call to mind parts of Cummings’s “since feeling is first,” especially “death i think is no parenthesis.” Also, Miller’s “Failed Prophet” dishes out unsolicited advice to his son as Polonius lectures Laertes in Hamlet. Parts of “Intimations of the Thaw” are like haiku or tanka: brief and concerned with suffering and transience.

Miller’s poetry is as confessional and aphoristic as it is allusive. In the act of confessing, his speaker is by turns humorously self-deprecating and serious—“let’s / second-guess our second-guesses. It’s a game / I tend to win” and then “Last night I thought I wanted tragedy.” The intermittent aphorisms, such as “the antidote / To suffering is pain,” are not only pithy and pregnant but also epiphanic. Providing balance or variety, other elements—including wordplay, personification, and synesthesia—also appear, but less frequently. No, Miller does not settle for the conventional use of a few poetic tools. He experiments. In the last poem, what would normally be adjectives or nouns become verbs. “Savage me with noise and scorn,” he says.

The first strategy of Miller’s that I notice is removing the article—not Without a Compass, but Without Compass. Given this minor change, I consider four secondary definitions of “compass.” First, there’s the gadget with arms for drawing and measuring. Miller’s speaker determines the distances between others and himself: “My family is close. But I am distant.” Second, there’s the scope of something. In a world of poetry books that deal with narrow slices of experience, the thematic compass of this book is refreshingly broad. Within it are diverse psychological states that succeed loss. Third, there are areal boundaries, some of which, according to Miller’s speaker, are illusory: “Go out? There is no out. / Outside this tent the desert, / and outside the desert, sand.” Fourth, there’s the range of notes something can produce. This poetry produces many notes with multiple effects. Each time Miller removes the article, like “here is only veil,” his speaker taps into a primitive or developmental state—that of pointing and naming things for the first time: “Compass. Veil.”

On the whole, Without Compass feels contemporary in the best sense, because we can identify the effects or purposes of Miller’s many techniques. “Field Glass (Manifest)” does away with punctuation and uses plus signs between sections, making the thoughts of Miller’s speaker appear by turns to be adding up or not. Other poems here are fragmented, encouraging reader participation to fill in the gaps. We receive only three of eight reasons in “from Reasons I No Longer Date.” We may imagine the missing reasons, just as we may imagine plots for the “Scenes and Situations” listed later. Other techniques with varying effects and purposes include the numbers experiment in “Numerology,” and the use of found language in “Imitations of the Thaw,” and the borrowing of terms from psychiatry and aesthetics in “Dinner in the Uncanny Valley.”

Whatever the technique may be, and despite the ambiguity, a Miller poem is at its best when detailing an action that proves symbolic and evocative—an objective correlative, to borrow a term from Eliot. How can a poem portray, say, giving up fear and isolation and accepting mortality? “Field Glass (Communion)” describes dropping a long held bayonet. What about being depressed or lonely and therefore vacant? “It Rained Tonight” describes dangling an open umbrella until it fills with rain and drops. Miller knows the virtues not only of such pure showing but also of telling in ways that highlight the speaker’s dialectical thinking and that render him a round character. “You discourse of / virtue as if it meant something,” he says, and later speaks with interest of someone learning humility and bristle.

Like few speakers in contemporary poetry, this one undergoes plenty of admirable changes over the course of the book. He becomes more active, “marking up a manual of dangers” and making a resolution to “return to earth.” He takes some responsibility for his tragedy and admits, “it is over.” He learns “to welcome those / who make the place feel welcoming.” He becomes more self-aware, saying, “I met a man who told me secrets” and “I am that man.” No longer captive to stories, he prays, “lead me, in a new direction, home.” He finds a worthy purpose: “I would wolverine on. Take me for talon.” Yes, as his poetic dunes reform, he himself reforms. And I can’t help but check my own compass.

Nathanael Tagg holds an MFA from Rutgers, where he taught literature and creative writing as a Truman Capote Literary Trust fellow. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in eight literary journals—most recently Sonora Review and Arts & Letters. He is an assistant professor of English at Cecil College.