Club Icarus, which Major Jackson awarded the 2012 Vassar Miller Prize, is Matt W. Miller’s second collection of poetry after Cameo Diner. In his blurb on the book’s back cover, Jackson rightly praises Miller’s “down-to-earth intelligence” and “acute alertness to the gritty movement of language.” The epigraphs which precede the poems promise the same, and more. The first epigraph comes from Book Six of The Aeneid where Aeneas meets Sibyl, a priestess who serves Apollo. Walking under the temple’s golden roofs, Aeneas recounts how their maker, Daedalus, tried but failed to memorialize his son’s fall there. The second epigraph borrows from Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light,” whose speaker is a modern reincarnation of Icarus. Disobeying his mother, he looks at “the eyes of the sun” because “that’s where the fun is.”
Like the Icarus of myth, Miller’s speaker aims high. From the outset, his poems display a sensitive mind with ambitious scope. Everything, no matter how small or huge, is worthy of attention. The first poem of the collection, “The Beauty of a Nail,” is a secular meditation on the Passion. The “beauty of a nail” depends on how
…it holds upthe house, the pipes,
the unrolledinsulation or evenwhen somewhat seenas when it holds a man [End Page 298]
up to martyrdom—always the tool,not the meaning.
The language of the best poems, as is true of this one, carries their learnedness with an easy grace. Because the nail is so commonplace, because the language is so disarmingly simple, the ending is surprising and gives the nail new significance. Religion reappears more directly in other poems where it is questioned. In “12 oz. Koozie,” to “say God” is a futile prayer. “What is beyond the whiteness and what listens / after that?” the speaker asks.
It is clear that, like Springsteen’s rebellious Icarus, Miller is having fun. His language is an exhilarating mix of high and low, the sacred and the profane. I find his poems democratic for not only his egalitarian approach to choosing subject matter, but also his powerful slang. In “True Story,” the speaker recalls a “full on hate-fuck” with God, after they get drunk at a club. God “pulled my cock // out from his pussy / and stuck it up // his own asshole,” he writes. Despite its seeming irreverence and glibness, the poem’s crux concerns a serious problem: what the speaker calls “the whole / personal Jesus idea.” Elsewhere, his language takes on new registers and qualities just as surely; it is as amorphous yet as definitive as water. The verbiage in “Studies Show,” especially the phrase “faintly blushing gelatin,” is Whitmanesque for its visceral vocabulary and exuberance. “The Whale” dissects a beached whale into “fluids,” “maggots,” and a “crumble of gravewax and fat.” In another poem, “Icarian,” Miller reimagines Icarus as daredevil skateboarder Jake Brown. The poem’s tone and delivery might as well belong to a sportscaster:
After the first ever backside720 across a seventy-foot-gap
Jake Brown in a slideloses his board at the ramp’s
vertical lip and rises50 feet up into the air…
What distinguishes Miller’s narrative poems is their energy. He masterfully paces his story so that the language gathers the momentum of the skateboarder’s own spirals. It is unclear who the real athlete is—the skateboarder or the poet himself.
The violence of Icarus’s fall, as Miller’s epigraph from The Aeneid reminds us, is not limited to the boy or to his physical body. Daedalus’s failure of expression is just as telling as his son’s tragic actions. Reading Miller’s poems, I find a wonderfully human contradiction: for all the passion [End Page 299] he has for language, he also has a respect for silence. Like Daedalus, Miller’s speaker looks to art as a means of rescuing himself and the person or thing lost. Like the nail from the first poem, language is an imperfect tool that Miller uses to reach meaning...