Tim Miller. S4N Books,$24.99 paperback (622 pages) ISBN 978-0-9798707-4-3
As the product of a union between a minister and an elementary school teacher, my childhood was steeped in ancient literature – everything from Bible stories to European myths and African folk tales. Add to that my teenage fascination with medieval English literature and my resulting foundation in classic texts made it possible for me to appreciate the massive scope of Tim Miller’s research for To the House of the Sun, a novel-in-verse set in America’s Civil War era.
Miller’s book-length poem opens with Conrad mourning the murder of his wife at the hands of his father. The image-rich language flows easily as he decides to walk away from Savannah, all but shaking the dust off his proverbial sandals when he leaves. Miller’s poetics twist around the mind like his character winds around the South, allowing the reader to experience visceral textures of language and perspective. For example:
“Conrad opens his eyes & squints outside at the glare of the glass & the passing fields & quick specks of people, standing there—& he looks at the loud guy just talking, smug & big, each word given with a slap or a step back or a head shake:” (pg. 51)
And just as the Bible opens with straightforward narrative and ends with surreal images too fantastic for the mind to absorb, so does Miller’s tale. As Conrad continues wandering across the whole of the continent, he first encounters the divine, then absorbs it so fully that he radiates it – like the biblical Moses whose face shone in blinding fashion after a mountain-top conversation with God. Once this transformation takes place, Miller’s language transforms as well into a driving expository force:
“& I was flying in the water & others flew with me:
& they dove & submerged & reappeared with me, gasping:
& the water came on like a battle:
& the water bellowed like a bull:
& the wind screamed like an eagle:
& the darkness was dense,
& the sun was gone—” (pg. 264)
The nearly constant use of the ampersand to begin lines and chapters (as seen above) did become increasingly distracting as the poem went on. From a visual standpoint, this device made the text appear heavy and impenetrable in places. From a sonic standpoint, the repetition of “and” interrupted some otherwise-lovely rhythm and diluted the strength of many otherwise-powerful images. By page 40, I had to treat the ampersands like bullets and do my best to ignore them so that I could concentrate on Miller’s complex narrative.
This book is not for readers who prefer straightforward language and a clear narrative structure. However for those who are willing to work past some distraction and the overuse of poetic repetition, To the House of the Sun will take you on a journey from the south to the west, from the sea to the sky, all the while peeling flesh off spirit until all that’s left is the echo of one man’s imagination. (February 2015)
Purchase To the House of the Sun HERE.
Reviewer bio: JS Graustein is the Editor in Chief of Folded Word, where she served as the co-editor of the Twitter-lit anthology On a Narrow Windowsill (2010) and the calligrapher for the haiku chapbooks Wasp Shadows (2014) and What Was Here (2015). She is also the author of How to Write an Exceptional Thesis or Dissertation (Atlantic Publishing, 2012). Visit her at grayestone.wordpress.com