Review of The Trouble With New England Girls by Amy Miller
Concrete Wolf Louis Award Series, 2018
“What would I do here?” So begins “Westfield, Massachusetts,” the opening poem in Amy Miller’s new book, The Trouble With New England Girls. “Here” is a “bristle-backed town,” a “slasher-movie paradise,” a place that would “set me down in a sleepy house / with the front porch falling in.” Miller’s book revisits disquieting territory, revealing the tension between memory and belief.
In the title poem, “The Trouble With New England Girls,” Miller paints a portrait of who she might have been had she stayed in Westfield:
Sometimes they get pregnant
and drive to New Jersey
they come back
married and quiet,
or quiet and alone.
These girls live under “the moon / with its third-degree light / pounding the truth / right out of them.” That judgmental moon reflects the unforgiving conditions these girls endure, girls who “think the moon rises / and sets.”
The father in this book, a parent whose moods rule the family table, appears in “Sunnyvale:” “we knew to pass the plates / without a sound.” In a later poem, “Resistors,” the father tries to reach out to “his daughter / striped in a thrift-store skirt / and punk shoes:”
…this was more
like the keening barrel rolls
of his cropdusting days.
The gulf between father and daughter seems almost too wide to cross, at least with mere conversation; the father finds solace in the garage, where he’d “wrestle metal for hours.” In “Channellock Pliers,” he gives his daughter a tool set: “the level / and awl and putty knife / and wire cutters and tin snips.” After assessing each tool, the speaker chooses a pair of pliers and slips them under her pillow, “their heft just right / for splitting a skull / in a blind swing / out of startled sleep.” She never tells her father how she uses his gift – as a potential weapon, a way to protect herself against an intruder. This use of the tool for something other than its intended purpose seems to illustrate an aspect of the relationship between father and daughter – not exactly a misunderstanding, but a subtle, poignant reminder of the tender and perilous world both inhabit.
A series of untitled poems, originally written for the August Poetry Postcard Fest, alternates with poems titled “The Grief as…”. Written mostly in the second person, these seventeen poems create an elusive, intensely private exchange. The lines “If you know / you’re drowning” from “[If you fall into the rapids]” seem answered in “We all belong / to someone. Someone / may be missing you. This / may also be a test” from “The Grief as the Warning Siren for Hosler Dam.”
In “[Fire stole the summer and smoke],” the transformation of a landscape through fire yields to the relief of “rain – washed blue, bright cloud.” Similarly, in “The Grief as the Theory of Parallel Universes,” opposing forces weave together:
You have taken this drive before.
But the roadmarks aren’t
what you remember…You
are the constant, but even
your memory remakes itself.
As the fire remakes the land, the speaker’s memory shifts, disturbing her sense of reality. The more she tries to make sense of it, the more it slips away, until finally all she can confirm is “you were stopped there, / the engine out of breath. / Today you’re still moving.”
In “Wolf OR-7 Passes the Site Where a Bounty Hunter Killed Oregon’s Last Known Wolf in 1946,” Miller takes us to the spot where Oregon’s last known wolf was killed:
The air was moved, and air
has memory. The things
it hears: a bullet
shattering, a bone’s bark
According to transmissions from its radio collar, OR-7, a male wolf reintroduced as part of an effort to repopulate wolves in the Pacific Northwest, did pass near that spot, a fact that seems tailor-made for myth-making, and poetry.
Moving deftly from outer to inner landscapes and back, Amy Miller probes beneath the surface of our current reality, bringing up equal parts dark and bright. The Trouble With New England Girls teaches us that duality, however uncomfortable, is fertile territory.
Amy Miller has had a long career as an editor and print-production manager at several magazines, book publishers, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her chapbooks include I Am on a River and Cannot Answer (BOAAT Press) and Rough House (White Knuckle Press). Her poetry and nonfiction appear in Gulf Coast, Nimrod, Rattle, and many others. She is won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland, the Jack Grapes Poetry Prize from Cultural Weekly, The Whiskey Island Prize, the Kay Snow Award, and the Earl Weaver Baseball Writing Award.
The Trouble With New England Girls is available from Concrete Wolf Press.