Last month, the poet Tim Miller published a large batch of my poems in Underfoot, an online journal he co-edits from his home in suburban Pittsburgh. His engagement with my work led me to engage with his.
Miller’s interests range from the American Civil War through neolithic material culture to small town Americana. Miller is not nostalgic, but he is sensitive to what the historian Peter Laslett once called “the world we have lost.” It’s not as if we’ve gained nothing from modernity. Yet few advances come without considerable cost. Miller counts those costs.
The result is a somber yet lyrical realism unusual in the work I’ve recently read. “Accessibility” is sometimes used as a synonym for poetic artlessness. Not here. The narrative quality of his language is entirely appropriate to his concerns. These are tastes that now fall well outside the American literary mainstream. His poems are “ambitious” – ambitious in the sense that Donald Hall used the term, to indicate poetry which searches for meaning beyond individual experience, family history, or contemporary events (though it may be grounded in all three). Miller reaches as far as his art can take him, well beyond the circumference of his own experience.
The first of Miller’s books to arrive at my door (others are on their way) is Hymns & Lamentations. Each poem is occupies a page – and the pages are small. Most stanzas begin with the phrase “Oh God,” a call to a God whose presence is invisible but felt.
The title is purely descriptive. Part I consists of fifty lamentations, delivered by those slain in the genocides of the past three centuries: the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Atlantic slavery among them. Spoken directly without the veil of figurative language, they are difficult to read in one sitting. Here are two excerpts, the first in full and the second in part:
14. A lamentation over a woman:
Oh God: there are men around without weapons: men who have no part in this but are here & who don’t understand what they’re seeing. & one looks at my nudity & how we all have a hand on the shoulder of the woman ahead of us.
Oh God, they don’t understand: they want cries: they want tears: they want rage. I’m done with that: my family are all dead: I’m not here anymore.
Oh God, I saw one of your men (a man of God) dressed all in white: & as he approached the pit I saw him faint at all these things: & I saw him thrown in & shot. If I could only faint. I don’t even know how to breath.
40. A lamentation over the hands, legs & heart:
Oh God: these hands are yours: you created them, & merely gave them to me—why do you consent to their destruction? Why do you allow hands that could praise you to be cut off & broken, to be bound? …
Heartbreaking when registered as pleas for God’s intervention and searing when escalating into accusations against an absent God, these lamentations are unsparing. It is striking that Miller dares to voice the lamentations of ghosts with whom he has no blood kinship. This is not unique to Miller, of course: last month I noted the same daring in Ewa Chrusciel’sOf Annunciations. It’s a risky thing to do, though: living Jews, diasporic Africans, and Cambodians are understandably proprietary about the horrors inflicted upon their ancestors. Like Chrusciel, Miller succeeds because he does not interpose his own voice between the reader and the dead whose imagined voices he resurrects.
Following Part I’s fifty lamentations are Part II’s fifty hymns. While the dead lament, it is Miller’s “I” who sings God’s praises. Here are two:
22. A hymn for the doubt:
Oh God: some days I’m small: some days I’m nothing & feel you’re so far away. Some days I’m lazy or easily angered or I spend all day looking only to criticize.
Oh God: some days I’m afraid: some days I can’t say a word to my wife or anyone else: some days I’m sure my prayers are ugly & useless & I’m sure only of the empty burning that comes from idle arguments about you.
Oh God, some days I’m sure everything is death: some days all I see is the skin the snake’s left on the ground, not the new one slithering away. Oh God, some days all I see is the huge fire nearly extinguished–& some days it’s impossible to see the tiny coal, still red & able to reignite the whole.
Oh God, some days I feel something that isn’t even pain: some days I feel something worse than sadness: some days I only feel this useless pity & torper toward all you have made: some days I can only cry at how empty & unjust you are.
& thank you God for not making this every day.
30. A hymn for humility:
Oh God: help me be humble: help humility be endless: help the greatest humility come by becoming you: help me have nothing & want nothing by becoming you: help there be nothing of me since there’s only you: help me come to you that closely, & let that coming be endless….
The hymns gain their considerable power exactly from the fact that they follow the laments. Miller does not make the mistake of pretending that the praise and love of the hymns can console or compensate the cries of the murdered and lamenting dead. He does not try to explain their suffering. That’s left to the reader. This makes the poems considerably more powerful: they continue revolving in my mind, lament and hymn, long after I read them.
Hymns & Lamentations, remind me of Carmen Bernos de Gasztold’s Prayers from the Ark andCreatures’s Choir. A French Carmelite nun, Bernos de Gasztold wrote deceptively light pieces – easily confused with children’s poetry – to explore exactly the themes Miller mines. Here, from the Rumer Godden’s translation, is a taste:
The Prayer of the Mouse
I am so little and grey,
how can You keep me in mind?
Always spied upon,
Nobody ever gives me anything,
and I nible meagerly at life.
Why do they reproach me with being a mouse?
Who made me but You?
I only ask to stay hidden.
Give me my hunger’s pittance
safe from the claws
of that devil with green eyes.
What could hold me,
except Your ocean?
My inordinate size
must obviously be
a divine joke,
but am I
like a blown-up blubber toy?
I am a peaceful leviathan,
on a strict diet,
on my nose.
My sole prolem
is to choose between ater and air;
hunted for my mollifying oil,
I dread the whalers
who mercilessly chase me
with their iron harpoons.
I never asked for such yards of flesh,
and where can I hide
from the lust of men?
if only some fortunate plunge
would let me come up into
Your eternal peace.
Like Miller, Bernos de Gasztold is very much concerned with the questions we must ask if we are to seriously believe God exists: Why me? Why am I weak? How does my pain serve you? Why, despite this, do I love you? Like Miller too, Bernos de Gasztold does not presume to answer on behalf of God. In neither collection does God account for the world-as-it-is. In fact, God is completely silent in both these collections. If there’s a still small voice whispering in the reader’s ear, it’s not the poet’s.
The poems found in both Miller and Bernos de Gasztold point, inevitably, to the Book of Job. Having lost his family, servants and flocks to God’s implacable power, he curses “the day in which I was born,” a curse that unfolds in the twenty-five verses of chapter four. This provokes Job’s friends to remonstrance and debate: another thirty-three chapters exploring anticipating such debates in the ensuing millenia. Finally – we are now in ch. 38, in which God challenges both Job and his friends, asking:
Who is this who gives dark counsel, with words, without knowledge?
Now gird your loins like a man, and I will ask you and [you] tell Me:
Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me if you know understanding.
Who placed its measures if you know, or who extended a line over it?
On what were its sockets sunk, or who laid its cornerstone?
Who came to meet Me? I will pay [his reward]. Everything under the heavens is Mine.
In the end, Job praises God and is rewarded for his faith with an even larger household and flock. In our time, this is a hard text to bear. Those who actually suffer get no direct response from God, and material rewards for faith are as rare as multimillion dollar lottery wins. It is fitting that Miller and Bernos de Gasztold refuse to rely on a deus ex machina that will swoop in to rescue believers from the existence of evils, a central question which, in Christian theology, goes by the name of theodicy.
I stand a hair’s-breadth from atheism, and at one point in my life, I would have found in these poems support for a former hostility to all religion. No more. A God whose reasons are beyond are ken may be deeply unsatisfying, but is hardly less so than saying, for instance, that human selfishness and sadism are merely consequences of psychological disturbances or (worse) evolutionary necessity. The problem of evil idoesn’t disappear just because God doesn’t exist. In some ways, it becomes more pressing and difficult, not least because it becomes harder to name evil. We have to invent our own names for it, we are not reliable accusers.
Miller’s poems do make two unwarranted assumptions. The first is that condemned would utter God’s name. In the Holocaust particularly, the dead included Socialists, Communists, libertarians, and a whole range of cultural secularists. Second, even the religious might not blameGod. As Martin Buber remarked in The Way of Man, there were Chassids who went to their deaths intoning niggunim, the wordless songs of praise and joy that emerged in 18thcentury Jewish renewal. As for enslaved Africans, some few may have been Christians, particularly the Catholic Congolese. The majority, though, worshipped in indigenous traditions or were Muslim.
These historical corrections are, of course, somewhat beside the point. To the extent that it’s possible to extract an argument from a collection of poems, his argument is about the nature of God and of God’s love. It is an incitement to a more thoughtful theology.
Tim Miller is a rare bird in American poetry, an echo of the mid-20thcentury Christian stoicism that has steadily retreated under the assault of pop culture, “prosperity Christianity” and other developments. Since the problem of evil is common across religious (and unreligious) lines, his work deserves a wide readership. Long may he write.