Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
In the late 1950s and early 60s a new and controversial type of poetry emerged in the United States. Poets like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass and Sylvia Plath were writing about intimate personal issues and taboos that were placed squarely in that space between reader and poet that usually had a comfortable distance. In his seminal essay, “Poetry as Confession”, M.L.Rosenthal named this new school “Confessional Poetry”, defining it as poetry that exposed the reader to confidences beyond the usual bounds of embarrassment. While previous poets held a distance between poet and narrative voice, this new poetry did not, placing the poet’s failed marriages, infidelities, sexuality and the like squarely before the reader. There was no mask, no uncertainty or confusion as to who was speaking and what they were speaking about. These new Confessional Poets totally exposed themselves in their art.
Blood Moon Weather by Margaret Gish Miller is such a book. The poet unabashedly speaks of the traumata of her life with a directness not usually found in contemporary poetry. The structure of the book is particularly interesting in that it is a biography, chronological, for the most part, ranging from Ms. Miller’s youth to her sixty seventh year. The poems, in most instances, are dark, beginning with the dissolution of her parent’s marriage to her sister’s institutionalization to years of attack by pedophiles to the poems describing the damage resulting from this set of horrors.
The extent of her terror can be found in “One Morning” that begins in a nightmare recollection of an overnight visit at a friend’s home
Who am I? while Sarah’s father slept,
The poet’s experience of this horror both within and outside of her family has her universalize it to all American homes. The phrase “a million files of defilement” hints at the blind eye of Social Services keenly on the lookout for truancy and cleanliness of a home but unable to see the deeper wounds of a broken family.
Her parents and step - father are rarely mentioned beyond the first section of the book. Their ghost like images leave the story relatively early and it is obvious that these two young girls have nothing but themselves to cling to during this time. One of the beauties of this book is that the dark poems are spaced with poems to her sister, her only real relative and one who has dealt with her own suffering. The love she has for her sister is evident in several poems, most especially in the short “Aftermath”
Iron maiden, Sister
Yet even this love cannot escape the warping effects of the past. “The Pumpkin” begins with
She had a pimp & everything…
On a cot behind a velvet curtain, the scent
A generous person,
I hung them in my closet…
This is the last poem of Section III of the book. The next section turns away from the judgmental words for her sister’s life and we find the two women together facing down their past. In “Flight Back” her sister leaves, ready to live her own life and leaving some clothing behind for the poet. As she tries on a transparent gown she utters “My sister, myself”, no longer judgmental and extending an empathy to this one person who understands the significance of the years they’ve gone through.
The last section of this book is a beautiful coda to the poet’s life. “Body Poem” is a poem for her husband with strong images of his masculinity and his place in her heart. “What One Woman Wants” is a verse list of those simple things that undo the damage of the past: children, grandchildren, friends – even rain. The book ends with the poem “Heart & Soul” leaving us with the image of her memory of playing the piano with her sister.
Reading this book is like crossing a mountain range. The ascent is difficult and there is always the temptation to turn back. Once the apex is reached, the descent becomes easier. As I read this book, I realized that this analogy was also a description of poetic tension. This ascent to the mountaintop was perilous for Margaret Gish Miller because of the demons she had to confront. A lesser poet would have reveled in the emotional contrivance of focusing on the unspeakable. Miller does not do this. While she directly confronts the terrors in each poem, she keeps her focus on the narrator, either herself as a child or her sister, and creates an empathy between the character and the reader.
Another characteristic of these poems is their ability to know how to engage the reader. “The Grow Room” begins with a quote from Bob Marley and is written in two lined verses with short lines and an upbeat tempo. The theme is the two sisters smoking weed and building a grow room together. The previously mentioned “Aftermath” says everything it needs to say in six lines. The overall effect is that, despite the difficult moments in some of the poems, this is the story of a very unique life. It is confessional in the sense that it presents that life unabashedly yet, like all good confessional poetry, the poet does not wallow in emotion. Margaret Gish Miller has created a book that follows the dictum of Anne Sexton:
“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard”.