Skinny Eighth Avenue
If the screaming red hue of USA Today‘s colorcoded weathermap is any indication, the dog days of summer have set in early across the lower 48. But fear not, swelterers: to every season there is a poetry book. The heat-fatigued and heart-woozy can kill the long stretch between breakfast and cocktails with a tart yet sweet, lemonade-hued copy of Skinny Eighth Avenue.
Skinny Eighth Avenue is a lively, brainy, probing and variform collaboration between the latter-day New York School poet/critic Stephen Paul Miller and his artist son, Noah Mavael Miller, who was in third grade at the time of the book’s release about a year ago. Miller’s erudite, humane, and yes, talky poems are punctuated by young Noah with exuberant drawings of mastodons, turtles, and other fauna, often climbing into and out of computer-generated holes (the most cheerfully loony of which is a large drawing of a grinning sea turtle which appears under the title "Hustling"). The resulting book, at once a capsule of private life and a contemplation of such public themes as the Iraq war, the Sixties, the Holocaust, and the collapse of the New Deal, mixes the zaniness, purposefulness, and frankness of kidhood with the zaniness, emotional nuance and intellectual range of an adult heart and mind at work.
Skinny Eighth Avenue includes a number of the lengthy, cascading, digressive poems you would expect to find in a New York School book, and these amble nimbly along on the strength of Miller’s ear, waxing academic, chatty, goofy, or diaristic in diction and tone by turns. The short lines form precarious slanting columns or cut strange swathes and snake around the pages, inviting the reader to scramble after them and get caught up in their runs and snares. The following passage comes 11 pages into a terrific long poem cataloguing a trip to California and mulling over the nature of power, politics, and modernity, called "I’m Trying to Get my Phony Baloney Ideas about Metamodernism into a Poem":
And then when my wife gets sick,
human resources dept. backs the college
of conservative arts and denies
me a family leave because they
say my wife’s too sick
and needs care outside the home and hence I’m
not caring for her. Huh? It allows them to, as women
so often experience, wash their hands
of harmless special accommodation for dire needs
and screw up childcare
for the good reason
of them winning. That’s 10% of it.
In another poem I’ll be more specific, I
guess, or, oh, forget it.
They’re just doing
what they’re supposed to do.
I shouldn’t take it so personal[ly],
but focus instead on
eating pizza on the beach with Noah.
He asks me what I’m thinking.
I lie and substitute my last thought: "1968 and
what would have happened?" "Huh?"
The line breaks here do not call attention to the semantics of the words or to the faux-organic marking off of breaths by an inspired typewriter(!) but to the illusory status of the poem, its ability to construct its own temporality which occasionally tags up with or darts away from an apparent or experienced readerly ‘present tense.’ Absorbed by the digression regarding the wife’s illness, we are temporarily moved away from poem’s constructed present tense on the beach. We come back to it when Miller’s speaker does, then experience his riffling through time when he "substitute[s] [his] last thought," a meditation on Bobby Kennedy which we know to have proceeded this vignette on the previous page of this very poem.
Time in these poems is shown to be illusory and malleable. The effect produced is like a dream in which one suddenly realizes one can fly or breathe underwater: one can move forward in the present-tense-simulacra of this book. Miller seemingly reflects on this temporal quality in a subsequent poem, "Pleasure," a rumination on what Jewish poetry is, or might be. Regarding Kenneth Koch, Miller states
By ongoing discourse, I mean talk
flowing to and fro like dovening yet also
seemingly endlessly forward.
This double quality of moving to and fro while also hurtling forward forms the mesmerizing double character of Miller’s own work.
In addition to the hefty digressive poems, Skinny Eighth Avenue also includes some Looney pieces in dramatic form, including "George Whatever Bush, or, It’s in the Bagh, Dad" which lampoons the haphazard hazards of our contemporary miasma via a dialogue between "AMERICAN ECONOMY" and "RIGHT WING"
Hey, it’s only infinite justice.
I forget why now, but I need absolute
control and some uh money. Who could
know the terrorists would fight so dirty?
Terrorists used to be so nice! (PHONE
RINGS. RIGHT WING ANSWERS.)
Uh oh, the Chinese are dumping bonds.
You’re in default, bitch.
WHAT AM I GOING TO DO!!! (PHONES SOMEONE)
Admittedly this is a bit broad, but then its target is not exactly a miniscule one, nor richly nuanced, so maybe the big stick is appropriate. The corny title certainly warns us of the gags in store. More subtle is “You Think Your Dream Is Real/Because You Can’t Feel The bed: 35 Plays by Noah and Stephen Miller”, which consists of brief stanzas of lines in dialogue:
If you eat another of my M& M’s
I’ll cut you open to get it back.
Don’t be so violent.
I’m not being violent.
I’d put you back together.
These self-contained segments, like those making up the renga-like title poem, ask us to use a different attention than the long skeining meditative pieces, to consider how line hooks into, prepares for, or recalls another line. At the same time, they remind us that the apparent single-sweep of those longer poems is also artifice, knit from smaller units, even if, as Miller remarks elsewhere, "I edit before I write from decisions I never/think of." Indeed, Miller’s capacious tonal flexibility is not based on possessing a miraculous medal blessed by O’Hara or Koch but on his sensitivity to the base material of all poetry, language itself. It is this that allows him shift shapes, to write not only digressive lyrics but quasi-flarfy found poems, persona poems, spam-inspired politico-erotic fantasias, skits, and a goofy yet persuasive essayistic poem entitled "’The Hustle’ and Its Liquid Totems of Holocaust, Suburb, and Computer." Miller can construct and conduct all these different phantasmagoria because they are made of the same stuff that makes up the self-erasing brevity of the eight-line "Photo Post":
The white of your shorts pocket lining
matches the little Frosted Flakes bag.
You are nothing but birth suspicious
the grounds of your birth have been
lifted, you stay at the corner
of the picture and
away from me,
connected to a thread.
Skinny Eighth Avenue is as packed, fleet, worldly, busy and exhilarating as any New York thoroughfare, neither cute nor particularly skinny, a hurtling and compelling book to breathe life into an airless afternoon.