Unspoiled Air, Kaisa Ullsvik Miller, Fence Books, 2008
As the editor of this blog and a couple of other soggy-shouldered poets could confirm, I’ve struggled to write this review for more than six months. For once, my slowness is not just due to my legendary procrastination or sudden, unforeseen circumstances in The Real World biting into what precious little time I’ve set aside for literary pursuits, but something much larger, and more difficult to overcome: my own uncertainty. To that end, I’d like to offer that this is not a review of Kaisa Ullsvik Miller’s Unspoiled Air in the Rotten Tomatoes sense of the word, but more of a brief summary of my personal beefs. I’ve settled on this approach, because after a dozen false starts, I’ve found that while Unspoiled Air is definitely not “my cup of tea” I am for all purposes incapable of deciding whether I think this book is any good. And I remain open to conversation that would persuade me one way or the other.
I do feel it’s necessary to point out that this is a prizewinning collection; Unspoiled Air won the 2008 Motherwell Prize, which not only carries the prestige of publication within an adventurous and handsomely-designed series but alsoone thousand dollars cash to the poet whose collection beats out all others. As I’ve read (and re-read) UA, I’ve tried to put myself in the final judge’s place: to figure out which elements of Ullsvik Miller’s style or execution had made her the most deserving poet. Ullsvik Miller impresses me as a New Age psychologist, a cartographer of transpersonal experience. She writes not in flowery, flamboyant celebration of the “self” and all the “self’s” achievements and potential, but in (deceptively) plain and simple meditation on the “self’s” roles in private and within society. I admire and appreciate that she uses her craft to tackle a realm generally left to egghead professors and yoga instructors.
However, the fact that this book is less about “what” than it is about “how” is sure to alienate half of its intended (that is, poetry reading) audience; the fact that her questions are dressed up (or down) in a language (or Language) that Andrew Schelling praises as particularly new-school Coloradoan (“…a distinct poetry, full of new rhythms & new speech, ways of writing that couldn’t come from New York or San Francisco), is sure to alienate the intended audience half-again. The remaining fourth of a readership is rewarded with (or challenged by) 49 pages of this:
People often say, Unspoiled air
air from crisp air
helpful breathing air can lift
your world monitor (“Unspoiled Air”)
If you find that you are this
specific, not too well-
you are already
your you may
want Your you to say
you’re they ( “By Love”)
The truth is ourselves what gives doesn’t directly for nearly everything you
want in life. you feed energy
need your well. We may even be muscles. our physical soul can be tuned
to Stay Calm, suddenly we are always tuned to wherever our will meet be. (“Pressing Matters”)
Unspoiled Air is one of the few poetry collections in which I’ve found that it’s probably impossible to present samples out-of-context. On the plus side, Ullsvik Miller is always personable and engaging, even when she’s difficult; the downside is, if you’ve read from three of these poems, you’ve read from all thirty-seven. In fact, the bulk of my uncertainty over this book stems from the very real headache that comes on every time I read more than five or six pages, as if I’m straining to read in the dark or without my glasses. My tolerance towards repetitiveness is usually nonexistent; when faced with repetitiveness on the page (and Ullsvik Miller’s monotone and circular constructs are gratingly repetitive), I tend to skim or shut-down. The publisher would describe my physical reaction as my “heretofore unrecognized need for a gentle and daily massaging of profanely innocuous, even corporate language into deliverable spiritual meaning.” In other words, if you collect pamphlets from therapists’ waiting rooms or if you find yourself relating to the friendly voice-overs in prescription medication commercials or if you’re one of the few people who did not skip over “Fitter Happier” when you first got your copy of Radiohead’s OK Computer and listened to the others tracks ad nauseam, then this Language is for you. Personally, I am not typically “soothed” by the innocuous—I prefer that my “innocuous” poetry provoke and transcend, not sooth. Also, I’ve honestly never enjoyed receiving massages. Of any kind.
Over the past few months, I’ve done searches online for other reviews of Unspoiled Air. I assumed I’d find a few blurbs or idle blog-chatter (given the book’s prizewinning stature.) I’ve wondered what other poets had taken into account before making up their minds about UA. Poetry, perhaps more than other arts, absolutely requires its practitioners to study what came before to understand what’s going on these days. One result is that most of what is published seems to have been published purely for peer review for better or worse. I was hoping to discover in other (more qualified?) reviews what Ullsvik Miller’s “peers,” meaning these so-called new Coloradoans, maybe, or first-generation Language poets, had decided about her prizewinning collection. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had much luck before a search in December turned up something ten times more useful, and, frankly, a hundred times more interesting: a conversation with Ullsvik Miller herself on the Tarpaulin Sky Reviews & Interviews blog:
Q: Tell me more about the language relationship between the New Age culture and postmodern poetics … as you see it.
A: I don’t have the ability to read all the theory I want to, or even all of the poetry I want to, or know as much about postmodern art or research spiritual texts to the extent I desire. I am lost in trying to figure out all of the connections, but I do connect deeply to those that mean something to me and my experience, and then they become a part of me, and get expressed through my work.
The disconnected parts within us can collaborate and shape our way of living and moving forward. I think that if we look for the cohesiveness within seemingly disparate parts that I’ve been talking about – whether in language or in our perceptions – then we can experience reality fully. Through this “collaboration” within, we are able to accept society’s awkward disjunctions, and embrace one another with greater ease.
I would encourage potential readers to find this interview before diving into Unspoiled Air. Maybe Ullsvik Miller’s explanations won’t affect whether you “like” her poetry, but they should provide you with just enough self-confidence to reach that conclusion. As for me, I’m still reading. And re-reading.