A WORLD OF MANNEQUINS: J. Michael Wahlgren on Wayne Miller’s The Book of Props


the book of props

The Book of Props, Wayne Miller, Milkweed Editions

The Book of Props is a world of mannequins, smokestacks and “the city’s billow of light.” With the clarity like that of A.R. Ammons, Wayne Miller creates his own world in which he escapes from; mannequins come to life. With a very delicate vocabulary, Miller paints new portraits of otherwise unseen or misunderstood situations. We find ourselves “Walking through the House with a Candle” or even “In the Poem he No longer lives in.” It is necessary, too, for the reader to escape. From a light in the pastry case to the snow falling, or the fog and the raindrops sounding like “tin clamor” Miller is very concerned with the present moment in the Book of Props. One example of this is a dialogue within the text, “Andy will say, as if we’re at the end / of a hallway making out a picture.”

One of Miller’s many characters makes an observation of the moment and compares it to “making out” a picture. Out of context this idea seems like an evil demon, something from which one cannot escape, but preceding it is the quote of “It’s like a painting of a city” which reveals that inside of the Book of Props, one can be in the city and in the painting, perhaps, in the same moment.

The idea of what happens after the narrator is no longer watching is of interest as well. The characters Miller creates can disappear or reappear in the text at any time, shifting gears with magician-like quality. Also, scenes seem to be juxtaposed within stanzas in the text, for example, in the poem “Justine’s Childhood“, memory seems to be the focus from a pivotal moment in the present. Miller describes the two images, juxtaposed, as [two scenes] which seems to possess an odd quality: the present moment mixing with the past. Justine recalls her mother’s words while glancing in a pastry case, but with the light on in the pastry case and “the shadow’s untouched / by the wind that propels it” Justine says, within the text, “It’s only the sail that flutters.”

Miller deals a lot with shadows and light, sleep and wakefulness. The characters within the text seem to appear and reappear, with memories appearing and reappearing as well. These characters, in a sense, are Miller’s props. Miller writes in [Love], “We can assume / that after dinner they stumbled / upon a first kiss. And later / when the evening was over / and the city slept at last, nothing had changed for us, and they / would never be the same” What is clear here is the third party watching these other two characters in love. The characters disappear, but the “us” and “they” continue to parallel one another or perhaps depend upon one another for their existence and reality. Whether or not the couple share a first kiss after they disappear from the text is of interest, but their situation is dependent upon this third party, or omniscient character for their reality.

The mannequins become real because Miller writes about them. Miller may be a magician, or an inquisitive writer because scenes seem to parallel each other and lead to some display for an audience. The audience could be the reader, or the reader may exist “within the painting” or in the gallery. If it’s “only the sail that flutters” this leads us to a quandary and cleaning up of the idea of reality. These props are created and magician-like, but when the book is done and the last page is turned the images last, the characters are real, and the narration, too, becomes reality. The introduction of a new perspective remains necessary to carry the reader. You may find yourself to be a prop, or a mannequin with real-life reflections; you may not want to escape.

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