“Miss Unthinkable” reviewed at Prick of the Spindle

This review was published in Prick of the Spindle (www.prickofthespindle.com) Volume 7.2

The Poetry Cheerleader: A Poetry Review Column

Miss Unthinkable by Pamela Miller
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, The Poetry Cheerleader

Mayapple Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-936419-26-5
Perfect bound, 53 pp., $14.95

I can’t help but be an enthusiastic cheerleader for Miss Unthinkable by Pamela Miller, and it turns out I’m an “accidental blurbist” for it, too! Mayapple Press quoted from my RHINO review of Miller’s previous Mayapple book, Recipe for Disaster, on the back cover of this one. And I’m in love all over again with Miller’s hilarity, language, unexpected images, and harrowing encounters with deep, dark reality, its caverns and tunnels illuminated by the headlamp on her hardhat. She’s a singing canary, a coal miner, and a spelunker all in one.

I could go anywhere in the book to give you an example of Miller’s distinctive style. Here’s a couplet from “Alphabet Ghazal”:

           Click beetles mutate into cabochon emeralds in my
           dreams night after night. I bolt awake like toast.

See how the green backs of beetles shimmer into emeralds as if logically in one line and then compress diamond-like in the dark, deep recesses of night in the next? Night’s darkness suddenly becomes a toaster slot, and it all shifts into a swift, surprising, new sense! And see how those two lines are “C” and “D” in the alphabet of this ghazal, which needn’t make linear sense at all, its form strung together like (alphabetical) beads in a necklace. But there’s an “AB” couplet preceding this, an “EF” (with frogs, Miller’s favorite poetic animal) following, then a “GH,” and then the couplet that introduces her title:

           Kansas City redhead Gwendolyn LaTrue is this year’s Miss Unthinkable.
           Little red mushrooms sprout from her back in her big production number.

Miss Unthinkable also opens with an abecedarian, “Encyclopedia of the Unseen,” and Miller is the queen of such fun, free verse forms. But it’s not all fun and games in her universe, and this is a list of what’s unseen and often dangerous. To wit:

           R is for the radiation of Chernobyl, draping its withered limbs across the planet
           S is for the smallest aspidistra in the world, sprouting shyly from the head of a pin
           T is for the torsos of icebergs
           U is for the underwear of ghosts

Miller lets us see the unseen. She shields us from nothing. (“N is for nothing”.) And she addresses the global and the personal with equal vigor and commitment. (“Y was for you when I needed you”.) Her prose poem, “The Next World,” made me finally understand karma and reincarnation. Likewise, “Unconditional Love Song” fully defines the concept of unconditional love. This poet of wild and precise images takes abstractions and folds them up into a jillion origami frogs to set in a circle around a shimmering pond and kiss, one by one.

Having tried mistranslation myself, I adore “Three Mistranslated Love Poems (With apologies to Eugenio Montale).” If Eugenio Montale never said, “Let me shimmy in the garden of your eyelashes,” he must wish he had. I even admire the placement of poems in this book: “The Nearness of You,” a pantoum, is opposite “On Trying to Write Poems with Formal Constraints After Writing Free Verse for Thirty Years.” What’s that like?

           I am holding a poem between my knees.
           It keeps wriggling and squirming so I clamp it even tighter
           like a human panini machine.

And, later on, “now I’m squeezing a poem inside my boa constrictor fist.” Pamela Miller commits to poetry, body and soul. Indeed, part two of Miss Unthinkable celebrates “The Body at Fifty” in a series of body-centered poems, and part three is a crone’s concert, “Song to Myself at Sixty,” full of the wisdom, angst, pain, terror, joy, and ease of that stage of life.

I’ll let you get hold of this book to find out “What It’s All About” and hear her “Last Request.” But I’d like to say how moved I was by “Drink My Poem,” dedicated to her sister, an “HR-negative breast cancer survivor,” a poem that evokes ancient Egypt, the exquisitely competent Cleopatra, and the healing waters of the Nile. I worked with my own sister last year on a dance/theatre collaboration called Cleopatra, and Pamela Miller, in her power and her vulnerability, reminds me of that great queen.

Miller is gorgeous and brilliant in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Woman,” a riff on a Wallace Stevens poem. I’ll close by quoting her brief stanza IX from that piece: “I knew a woman, lovely in her brains.” So did I. So do I: it’s Pamela Miller.

Kathleen Kirk is a writer whose work appears online and in print in Confrontation, Menacing Hedge, Poetry East, Spillway, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks, most recently Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012), and the poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She blogs about poetry, reading, and life at Wait! I Have a Blog?!