Wayne Miller

Winner of the George Bogin Memorial Award in 2007

The Assassination Lecture

Here's the moment that killed him:
bullet piercing his temple, head
thrown back as if in deep laughter.

And here's us: the crowd lining
the street, waving our little flags,
which were stiff with dye. (A century ago,

we'd be pinkish dots of paint;
now we're these clusters of pixels.)
I can tell you (because I was there)

that our gazes were just cilia
stroking the car, our bodies
mere buoys marking a channel.

Here's the muzzleflash: one leaf
catching the light. Here's a scream:
a cluster darkening. And class,

if you're to understand anything
of history, you have to see
it was the moment that killed him,

not the squeeze of the trigger,
not the network of phone calls
that obtained the gun. Not those

in the government whose voices
threaded the lines, not the lover
whose complicity was suspect.

Not the killer's dear teacher,
who published those tracts
against the system in the journals

of the time. Look at the screen:
like a queen's slip showing,
though she wears one every day—.

And now, students, in my pocket,
I have something special: the bullet,
which, as you've probably heard,

was stolen from the hospital, then
slipped quietly through the populace—
until it came to rest with me.

I'm going to pass it around.
Note its weight in your hand, even
look for a trace of blood. Here,

in our moment, this bullet's just
an inert little snout. It will start
in the front, then weave toward the back.

—Which of you is going to steal it?

 

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Eleni Sikelianos on Wayne Miller

It was difficult to choose among the many fine poems submitted for this award—some mournful, some playful, some angry. We need all of these tones, at any time and at this time; we need—we deeply need—the possible realities that attend language at its most imaginative. I selected Wayne Miller's poems for their uncanny ability to elegantly focus the mind on what has been totally emptied out. They fit the mood of the times, a mood I might call elegiac.

In "Identifying the Body" and "The Dead Moor Speaks," the body, like a city under fire, is evacuated. Bodies and cities: concurrently autonomous and non-autonomous zones. I admire, in "Dear Auden," how the poet has captured this civic fragility; the angular address to this storehouse of inhabitants at odds with some larger human reality. The City rolls on, content in its own machinations, its citizens bask in the warmth of its machinery. A larger picture unfolds. Who is in charge here? The agent/agency hovers out- side of any habitable office. No one is in charge. The City of this poem operates like a blank check—any City's name might be scrawled in the open wound—Baghdad, New York, Dresden, Tel Aviv, El Fasher.

These poems deal with that last trace of movement at the end of things. Movement of burning embers or thought in the husk of the body or the husk of the city. Voices that push against each other, breathing that pushes against the shell of the body. We don't know exactly what's passing out of existence, and what's being ushered in, but there is the strong feeling that much is failing, and we are tripping through failure's wake.

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