Book Review

Wayne Miller’s fifth collection of poems, We the Jury, opens with a warning not to take the small stories, the often plain language, figuratively; we are asked not to see metaphor. In “The American Middle Class,” the speaker implores us to read literally: “Clearly / the barn was not a metaphor” and then,

it netted us $21,000,
my third of which helped my wife
and me pay for an IVF treatment—
which is also not a metaphor.

But most of the poems embrace quiet personal or civic narratives that, like blueberries, ripen with purpose—blueberries the reader desires to pluck and pop. In “Two Thousand and Nine,” for example, the poem tells the story of a family’s eviction, but their trauma comes to represent in symbolic language the opioid and housing crises of 2019:

The rooms were stripped, the truck
was at my cousin’s—and since
the moment had foreclosed on us
we’d find a new moment to slip into.

Or in “Middle Age [1],” the story of an airplane lifting off becomes a much more profound portrait of the speaker’s impending desperation: “When we’ve just taken off . . . / that is when I most acutely feel / the plane could crash.”

The presence of effective, almost sheltered similes pushes against the poet’s desire for readers not to see events and people as symbolic. In “Mind-Body Problem,” Miller writes about the appearance and consequences of a brain tumor: “Your mind / like a pilot light inside your sleep”; and then in “Middle Age [2],” referencing a medical procedure, the speaker says,

I listened to the person
who had opened

for the first time ever
my abdominal cavity—

grown from nothing
like the hollow of a pepper.

The similes punctuate the figurative depth of the poems like a sword thrust, while the crisp details and restrained narrative generate echoes of meaning like a razor blade; the reader might not even feel the pain until after the blood rises.

Not all the poems are subtle about their desire to mean more than their parts. At the conclusion of “Parable of Childhood,” for example, after a boy has buried and reburied his pet dog, the speaker—from the boy’s consciousness—suggests the dog, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and not depending on who’s looking: “The dog was gone—that was clear // But the dog was also right there, just below the surface, packed in darkness. The boy could bring her back inside whenever he wanted— // no matter what his parents said.” The dog transforms into Jesus (a kind of answer to questions) and the boy God, stealing from his father (who has no answers for the boy’s questions) the role of “creator of meaning.”

The poems are dramatic but understated, quiet in the way a bassoon can fill a room without alarming the audience; they are gifts of steady language—unpretentious, unambiguous—in a world swarming with hornet-tipped voices. We always know what is happening; their meaning or how we should feel about the stories is more complex, and I felt with almost every poem an interest in the poet’s role. In the poem “At Today’s Auschwitz,” for example, we learn ghosts need upkeep and perhaps poets are, finally, the keepers of memory—terrible and otherwise. Time moves forward and change persists: “Our cities keep tumbling forward, // trees push into the air without us,” but the one who maintains the buildings, like a poet, goes “home / to his quiet, lit-up street.”

For me, the crystal language of poems like “On Progress” make the collection readable and engaging while the repetition, rhythms, and figurative myth-making of poems like the eponymous “We the Jury” connect the stories to a larger truth: creating sympathy is the poet’s role, and learning to sympathize is our only salvation. In “On Progress,” we begin with clarity and an act of “justice”:

My grandmother attended the last public hanging
in US history, which occurred
in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1936.

And “We the Jury” ends with a revelation: “not one of us // will truly understand what we have done.” In between these poems, we are witnesses to political revolutions, battlefields both public and private, and quiet personal catastrophes; each poem attempts to connect us to a range of perspectives and values—not to flatten them or make false equivalences but through a collection of small artifacts to make one main argument clear:

More important, in those moments
of terror and empty, useless grief

our primary need
was sympathy—real sympathy—

which we, like all the living,

Many of the poems in We the Jury may appear like the windswept town on the cover—a dead main street without a parade or fireworks, but they are alive with the promise that when spring arrives, the soil will be tilled, the trees will bud, and even the buildings will bustle with life. The poems are quiet like an iris bulb. If a reader puts her ear close, she’ll hear the ground rumbling.

About the Reviewer

Kyle Torke is a teacher of writing and reading, and he has published in every major genre. His most recent books include Sunshine Falls, a collection of nonfiction essays, and Clementine the Rescue Dog children's books.