by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
I sometimes wonder if what critics condemn in the writers they review are really the motes and beams which blind them in their own work.
When reviewer Peter Craft “damns with faint praise” the first published collection of Josephine Miles (1911–1985) by saying: “. . . [the] usual never-never of the American poetess is almost absent. Miss Miles is aware of the world in which she lives and this is to her credit.” But when he calls this her poem’s “limitations,” one wonders how he can so deftly determine the limitations of a writer under age 30 with only a single book to her credit. Since the year was 1939, how grievous he would consider this fault if the poet’s name were Joseph must remain a matter for conjecture, but when a man uses the phrase “usual never-never of the American poetess,” it surely raises the question.
I think Gwendolyn Brooks came much closer in her review of Miles’ Collected Poems, 1930-1983: “This is not poetry to be used for lullaby purposes. Eye and ear must stand awake, or much of the beauty and intellectual significance will remain on the page.”
Josephine Miles went on to become an award-winning poet who produced over a dozen books of poetry. She was also a distinguished professor, being the first woman tenured in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley (1947); a busy editor of anthologies and critical texts; and an author of books on poetic style and language.
What is truly astonishing about all her accomplishments is described by her friend and fellow poet Thom Gunn: “The unavoidable first fact about Josephine Miles was physical. As a young child she contracted a form of degenerative arthritis so severe that it left her limbs deformed and crippled. As a result, she could not be left alone in a house, she could not handle a mug…she could not use a typewriter; and she could neither walk nor operate a wheelchair.”
This poem is dated September, 1934. It speaks to me because my earliest memories are of our first family home, isolated at the end of a dirt road in the middle of the Arizona desert. Miles has captured that world of sun-glare and cactus perfectly.
When with the skin you do acknowledge drought,
The dry in the voice, the lightness of feet, the fine
Flake of the heat at every level line;
When with the hand you learn to touch without
Surprise the spine for the leaf, the prickled petal,
The stone scorched in the shine, and the wood brittle;
Then where the pipe drips and the fronds sprout
And the foot-square forest of clover blooms in sand,
You will lean and watch, but never touch with your hand.
Humor is often a refuge from pain, and here Miles intertwines loss with fantasy.
Mother said to call her if the H-bomb exploded
And I said I would, and it about did
When Louis my brother robbed a service station
And lay cursing on the oily cement in handcuffs.
But by that time it was too late to tell Mother,
She was too sick to worry the life out of her
Over why why. Causation is sequence
And everything is one thing after another.
Besides, my other brother, Eddie, had got to be President,
And you can’t ask too much of one family.
The chances were as good for a good future
As bad for a bad one.
Therefore it was surprising that, as we kept the newspapers from Mother,
She died feeling responsible for a disaster unverified,
Murmuring, in her sleep as it seemed, the ancient slogan
Henry Brooks Adams was a 19th century American historian and political journalist. He was also one of THE Adams, a descendant of two U.S. presidents.
“On Sunday morning, December 6, 1885, after a late breakfast at their home on Lafayette Square, Adams’s wife, Marian Hooper Adams, known in her circle as Clover, went to her room. Adams, troubled by a toothache, had planned to see his dentist. While departing his home, he was met by a woman calling to see his wife. Adams went upstairs to her room to ask if she would receive the visitor and found his wife lying on a rug before the fire. An opened vial of potassium cyanide lay nearby. Clover had frequently used this poisonous chemical in the processing of her photographs. Adams carried his wife to a sofa, then ran for a doctor, but she was pronounced dead at the scene.” – Wikipedia
She left no note, so her suicide was never explained.
Effort for Distraction
for Henry Adams
Effort for distraction grew
Ferocious and paced, that was its exercise.
Effort for distraction strained,
Legged in the hour-like single stretch
Its heels and sight to feel, so slit its eyes.
Effort without effort or with
Greatest possible effort always centered
Back in the concentrated trough where lies
The magnet to the filings,
The saw tooth to the tongue,
The turn of life to a returning life.
By all the traction of mind and spin of spirit
Having gained grasp gasped to bear it,
Having got ground groaned, furious title holder.
Paced and cried, so sore for a different direction, grew
Unkind to strength that gave it strength to grow.
Here Miles juxtaposes the legend of young George Washington axing the cherry tree, then confessing to the deed saying, “I cannot tell a lie,” with the story of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus on their long journey, refreshed by a tree which gave them fruit when the divine infant asked. Of course, the tree in that story was a date palm, but this is all symbolic.
As George Washington hacked at his cherry tree,
Joseph said to him
This is the tree that fed Mary
When she lingered by the way.
As George Washington polished his bright blade,
Joseph told him
This cherry tree
Bent down and nourished the mother and her babe.
As George Washington felled the cherry tree,
Voices of root and stem
Cried out to him
In heavenly accents, but he heard not what they had to say.
Rather, he was making
A clearing in the wilderness,
A subtle discrimination
Of church and state,
By which his little hatchet
Harvested a continental
Bumper crop for Mary
Of natural corn.
Miles writes this almost like a story for children. The family of the poem’s protagonist fails to recognize the danger, which a total stranger sees instantly. The details are so specific, one wonders if something like this actually happened. The Seal Rocks are in the surf just off a narrow beach below the famous Cliff House restaurant, south of San Francisco.
When you swim in the surf off Seal Rocks, and your family
Sits in the sand
Eating potato salad, and the undertow
Comes which takes you out away down
To loss of breath loss of play and the power of play
Help, help, help. Hello, they will say,
Come back here for some potato salad.
It is then that a seventeen-year-old cub
Cruising in a helicopter from Antigua,
A jackstraw expert speaking only Swedish
And remote from this area as a camel, says
Look down there, there is somebody drowning.
And it is you. You say, yes, yes,
And he throws you a line.
This is what is called the brotherhood of man.
Miles leaves it to the reader to decide the identity of the victim in Figure. It makes me think of Stephen Hawking. She draws you into the poem, asking you to be a participant instead of a spectator.
A poem I keep forgetting to write
Is about the stars,
How I see them in their order
Even without the chair and bear and the sisters,
In their astronomic presence of great space,
And how beyond and behind my eyes they are moving,
Exploding to spirals under extremest pressure.
Having not mathematics, my head
Bursts with anguish of not understanding.
The poem I forget to write is bursting fragments
Of a tortured victim, far from me
In his galaxy of minds bent upon him,
In the oblivion of his headline status
Crumpled and exploding as incomparable
As a star, yet present in its light.
I forget to write.
There is something deep and mysterious at the heart of her work. Miles never casts light down all the way into the depths, but leaves you to find your own way in the semi-dark.
All our stones like as much sun as possible.
Along their joints run both solar access and decline
In equal splendor, like a mica chipping
At every beat, being sun responsible.
How much sun then do you think is due them?
Or should say, how much sun do you think they are apt to have?
It has misted at their roots for some days now,
The gray glamour addressing itself to them.
I should think possible that it go on misting likewise
A good way into next year, or time as they have it,
A regular cool season every day for our stones.
Not a streak that low of any sun or longed surprise
This poem comes close to touching on her disabilities, yet would not reveal them to a reader who didn’t already know about them.
When I think of my kindness which is tentative and quiet
And of yours which is intense and free,
I am in elaboration of knowledge impatient
Of even the patientest immobility.
I think of my kind, which is the human fortune
To live in the world and make war among its friends,
And of my version, which is to be moderately peaceful,
And of your version; and must make amends
By my slow word to your wish which is mobile,
Active and moving in its generous sphere.
This is the natural and the supernatural
Of humankind of which I grow aware.
Her canvas is large, and she paints pictures full of details, gathered from many sources. Her scholarly impulse is not toward a narrow discipline, but neither is it blind to the hazards of a scholar’s curiosity. Still, it embraces many . . .
Fields of Learning
When we go out into the fields of learning
We go by a rough route
Marked by colossal statues, Frankenstein’s
Monsters, AMPAC and the 704,
AARDVARK, and deoxyribonucleic acid.
They guard the way.
Headless they nod, wink eyeless,
Thoughtless compute, not heartless,
For they figure us, they figure
Our next turning.
They are reading the book to be written.
As we start out
At first daylight into the fields, they are saying,
In every sage leaf is contained a toad
Carbonized grains of wheat unearthed
From the seventh millennium B.C. town of Jarmo
In the Tigris-Euphrates basin
Match the grains of three kinds of wheat still extant,
Two wild, one found only in cultivation.
The separate grains
Were parched and eaten,
Or soaked into gruel, yeasted, fermented.
Took to the idea of bread,
Ceres, while you were gone.
Wind whistles in the smokey thatch,
Oven browns its lifted loaf,
And in the spring the nourished seeds,
Hybrid with wild grass,
Easily open in a hundred days,
And seeded fruits, compact and dry,
Store well together.
They make the straw for beds,
They ask the caring hand to sow, the resting foot
To stay, to court the seasons.
Basil: hatred: king over pain.
What did you do on the last day of day camp?
First we did games, running around and playing.
Then we did crafts, making things.
Then we did nature, what goes on and on.
Eventually a number
Of boys have got big enough
Through all the hazards of drag-racing, theft, and probation,
To start for junior college, two transfers away,
Mysterious as Loch Ness.
While of grandmothers a number
Have stooping arrived to seventy or eighty
And wave the boys on, shaking
With more absentminded merriment than they have mustered
In half a century.
King Henry the Eighth consumed many daisies
In an attempt to rid himself of ulcers.
Algebra written across a blackboard hurts
As a tight shoe hurts; it can’t be walked in.
Music, a song score, hurts,
How far lies one note from another?
Graft hurts, its systems of exploitation
In cold continuance.
Argosies of design, fashions to which the keys
Rest restlessly in an Egyptian tomb.
In every sage leaf is contained a toad
Miles was a mentor to a number of young poets – several of whom went on to their own success, including Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Diane Wakoski, Diana O’Hehir, William Stafford, and A. R. Ammons. She helped Allen Ginsberg get Howl into print by recommending it to Richard Eberhart, who published an article in the New York Times praising the poem.
Josephine Miles died in Berkeley, of pneumonia, just a month before her 74th birthday. She bequeathed her Berkeley home to the University of California, which offers the house for use by the visiting Roberta C. Holloway Lecturer in the Practice of Poetry.
Some critics have written that she was “too intellectual” a poet, and her poems lacked feeling. I think she was a survivor, and the pain of her long struggle is in the poems, deliberately obscured by her brilliant use of language and storytelling, because she wanted no one’s pity.
Oh, you’re wondering about today’s title? Onyx is a durable gemstone traditionally thought to enhance determination and perseverance. Ancient Roman soldiers carried amulets of sardonyx (a red variety of onyx) engraved with Mars, god of war, to give them courage in battle. In Renaissance Europe, sardonyx was worn to bestow eloquence on the wearer.
- Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/josephine-miles
- Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/josephine-miles
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Miles
- Poetry Out Loud: http://www.poetryoutloud.org/poems-and-performance/poets/detail/josephine-miles
- Calisphere/University of California: http://texts.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb4d5nb20m&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=div00112&toc.id=
- Lines at Intersection,Macmillan (New York, NY), 1939.
- Local Measures,Reynal (New York, NY), 1946.
- After This Sea,Book Club of California (San Francisco), 1947.
- Prefabrications,Indiana University Press (Bloomington), 1955.
- Poems, 1930-1960,Indiana University Press, 1960.
- House and Home(verse-drama), first produced in Berkeley, CA, 1960.
- Civil Poems,Oyez Press (Berkeley), 1967.
- Kinds of Affection,Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1967.
- Saving the Bay,Open Space (San Francisco), 1967.
- Fields of Learning,Oyez Press, 1968.
- To All Appearances: New and Selected Poems,University of Illinois Press (Urbana), 1974.
- Coming to Terms,University of Illinois Press, 1979.
- Collected Poems, 1930-1983,University of Illinois Press, 1983.
PUBLISHED WORKS ABOUT WRITING AND COLLECTIONS AS EDITOR
- Poems on Several Occasions,New Directions (New York, NY), 1941.
- American Poems,Cloud Marauder Press (Berkeley), 1970.
- Wordsworth and the Vocabulary of Emotion,University of California (Berkeley), 1942.
- Pathetic Fallacy in the Nineteenth Century,University of California, 1942.
- Major Adjectives in English Poetry: From Wyatt to Auden,University of California, 1946.
- The Vocabulary of Poetry: Three Studies(contains Wordsworth and the Vocabulary of Emotion, Pathetic Fallacy in the Nineteenth Century, and Major Adjectives in English Poetry: From Wyatt to Auden) University of California, 1946.
- (Editor with Mark Schorer and Gordon McKenzie)Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment, Harcourt (San Diego), 1948, revised edition, 1958.
- The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1640’s,University of California, 1948.
- (Editor with others)Idea and Experiment, University of California, 1950.
- The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1740’s and 1840’s,University of California, 1950.
- The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1940’s,University of California, 1951.
- Continuity of Poetic Language: Studies in English Poetry from the 1640’s to the 1940’s,Volume I: The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1640’s, Volume II: The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1740’s and 1840’s, Volume III: The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1940’s, University of California, 1951.
- Eras and Modes in English Poetry,University of California, 1957, 2nd edition, 1964.
- (Editor)The Poem: A Critical Anthology, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1959, revised and abridged edition published as The Ways of the Poem, Prentice-Hall, 1961.
- Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, and Modern Language in English Poetry: A Tabular View,University of California, 1960.
- (Editor)Classic Essays in English, Little, Brown (Boston), 1961, 2nd edition, 1965.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson,University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis), 1964.
- Style and Proportion: The Language of Prose and Poetry,Little, Brown, 1966.
- (Editor)Berkeley Street Poems, May 1969, Other Ways (Berkeley, CA), 1969.
- Poetry and Change: Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, and the Equilibrium of the Present,University of California, 1974.
- Working Out Ideas: Essays in Composition,University of California, 1979.
- California Desert
- Henry Adams seated at desk, writing – photograph by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883
- George Washington’s cherry tree incident
- Seal Rocks below Cliff House, near San Francisco
- Andromeda Spiral Galaxy M3
- Man in suit in motion
- Tiny Toad II by wildsoul
- Josephine Miles
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud