Wayne Miller

Winner of the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award in 2007

American Nocturne

It doesn't exist, America. It's a name
you give to an abstract idea . . . .
                      —Henry Miller
 
1. Here in the Eye of the City,

the window of a passing car
pulls my reflection from the ether
for just a second, then slips it
back beneath the dark street,

while in all directions the City's
an intricate weave of light—
cupped poses and atoposes—,
while out in the distant fields

cows sleep among the blind
pumpjacks weightlessly bowing.
Now a trashbag of bottles
tossed into the alley dumpster

sounds like a dropped chandelier,
and when the back door
of the Eastsider swings open
the notes from the Telecaster

playing inside are rounded,
like the fingertips that press them
into here—this Modern alchemy:
a fingertap floods the room,

a whispered word spreads
like oil on the lot's black lake.
The washateria's exhaust fan
keeps on spinning—each

angled blade chasing the next—
while across the street
my neighbor in his workclothes
sleeps on the couch, TV

blowing coolly against his face.
I imagine the stained glass
of a brainscan in a dim hospital
room—thoughts shifting

like sand—could be the system
coming in off the coast
tonight, as I sit on my stoop
getting a little drunk—;

which is to say: a line out of focus
has lost its density; which is
to say: a drop of dye
spreading into a glass of water—
2. To Sleep in the City,

when the earth has closed
its eyelid across us, when the dark
is the wind fuzzing over
a microphone. We pinch ourselves

closed like lilies, dig into the sand
where the syllables lie—
those knuckles, those vertebrae.
We must forget the body

lying in the dumpster, newspapers
covering it more deeply
each day. We must forget the City,
though we lift it together,

as in the blanket toss we learned
from the natives, just before
the City erased them. And while
the narratives of power

roll their ink across the surface
of the continents, roiling the air
up into the next historical map,
I must lie inside my body

and assure myself that everything
I've gathered will remain
just as I left it—such is the City's
promise. I'll forget the planes

passing overhead—dim ballpoints
of light—; I'll forget the wind
turning the pages of the book
I left open on the table—
 
line

Tracy K. Smith on Wayne Miller

"American Nocturne" does a gorgeous job of seeing and hearing and stitching together the many disparate pulses and pitches and layers of meaning characterizing contemporary experience. I appreciate the grace with which the outside world is married to the speaker's interior existence, an ability to move back and forth between the physical world and the dark unconscious material at work within and upon the speaker. This is a tendency that is announced immediately and with tremendous grace in the poem's opening lines:

The window of a passing car
Pulls my reflections from the ether
For just a second, then slips it
Back beneath the dark street . . .

In some ways, the poem's scope, and the lyrical texture of its language, recall the work of poet Lynda Hull. Toward the end of section 1, the speaker leaps from contemplating the collision of natural and urban elements in the neighboring environment to "imagine the stained glass / of a brainscan in a dim hospital / room—" and suddenly the poem's concerns amplify. Quietly and with lyrical precision, the poem adds the themes of power and mortality to its scope. I admire this ambition and the poem's resonant grace.

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