“This Sudden Abundance of Seeing”

Kei Miller, In Nearby Bushes (Manchester: Carcanet, 2019); 76 pages; ISBN 978-1784108458 (paperback)

• June 2021

In Nearby Bushes, Kei Miller’s most recent volume of poetry, is billed on its back cover as exploring “his strangest landscape yet—the placeless place.” And indeed, place/placelessness is a major theme of the collection; the “nearby bushes” of the title is both the literal vegetation of the Jamaican landscape that appears as a colluding culprit in reportage on crime in the country and a more metaphorical sense of “cover” for the illicit, both of which are alluded to in the collection’s epigraphs.1 Even more important, In Nearby Bushes speaks to the symbolic “bushes” of history, language, culture, and time. Throughout the collection, Miller compels us to look closely into those forested expanses and insists that we not only recognize the multidimensional nature of the bushes but also dare to walk into their depths, to unearth what lies under their cover and bring all that is found there to light. In this way, In Nearby Bushes is a project in both memorializing and remembrance, wresting back from these bushes all that they have swallowed—bodies and lives, the true beginnings of stories and their more honest endings, shame and resistance, and the various causes, costs, and collateral damage of historical and present-day violence.

The collection’s front matter includes the epigraphs and also the poem “Here Where Once Lay the Bodies.” This frontispiece poem, which lists the names of victims found in various bushes, offers entry into the memorial work of the collection. Miller notes the ages and the dates of discovery of each victim in the manner of both elegy and documentation. The bushes are not mentioned in the poem but are alluded to through the verb “found,” which shifts the focus from the place of discovery to the fact of retrieval—the resurrection of those bodies from that space of erasure. The poem becomes a collective headstone or literary monument and does the work of restoring the lost, bringing their names back to the record of the living; it ends with the somber note that “these are only some” (3). The poem thus unearths from the “bushes” of forgetfulness even those whose names are unknown; they, too, are remembered and mourned.

The title of the first section, “Here,” can be read as a spatial marker—this place—but also can be read as an offering, an outstretched hand offering to the reader the bouquet of poems: an invitation to journey into the bushes and to unearth what lies there. The section walks readers through a plethora of “heres,” pointing out moments, spaces, and ideas that only the keenness of the poet’s pen could tease out. Deftly moving between the literal and the symbolic, zooming his scope both wide and close, Miller unveils the landscape and then all that the landscape holds that has been erased by time, haste, convenience, and inaccurate recording, subtly pointing out that to look deeply, to see things clearly, is itself an essential act. In “Here Where Blossoms the Night,” for example, Miller begins with an unveiling of the literal, breaking down the ubiquitous and generalized notion of “bushes” into the specific names of flowers and trees—“orchids”; “Jamaican Ladies of the Night”; “Hog Apple”; “Cow Tongue” (11–14). He then zooms in to the specific linguistic (r)evolutions harbored in some of the flora names, showing what “cannot be held by the small arms of English,” and then dizzyingly pulls back the forest itself to show the history it hides of Nanny and her resistance to British rule, how she could “clear the bush of English” (12). In “To Know Green from Green,” Miller challenges readers to look to the spaces he points out—“Here”—and to practice discernment in looking: “To know the nearby bushes,” he tells us, “you must know green from green” (17).

In the final poem of the section, “A Psalm for Gay Boys,” Miller offers another revelation and insists on a different kind of “seeing.” Here, the literal and figurative cover of the bushes function as a sanctuary for gay men forced to make space for themselves outside their communities. The “here” of the bushes is queered throughout the poem to a “where”—a question/location, paradoxical and liminal both, in which nothing is clear or straight. This flux allows these men a place of escape: “where we run to / where we stop running.” In the face of violent homophobia, the invisibility of the bushes offers “refuge & strength” (26). In closing this section thus, Miller shows that the bushes writhe with living bodies, yet these bodies are buried, too, by a refusal to see or acknowledge them.

The second section, “Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places,” is a suite of “microessays” that does exactly as the title claims. For those who have read Miller’s 2014 collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, these ruminations on the history and resistance held in the history of place names will be familiar, as throughout that collection too is scattered a sequence of “Place Name” poems that engage in a similar enterprise. While the poems in the earlier book focus on place names in Jamaica, this new collection takes the world as its purview. The first microessay, “Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places” (one of three to share this title), points out the consumptive nature betrayed by names, such as “New York, as if York was not enough / New Orleans, as if Orleans was not enough,” and sums up the violent acquisition of the “New world, as if the world was not enough” (29). Brilliantly, Miller then shows that consumptiveness as a kind of laziness, framing it as a refusal of colonial powers to see what was in front of them because they were too busy imagining it as echoes of what they had already seen and known: “We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place” (“Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places,” 33). Miller chooses instead in these pieces to look deeply into the bushes of ideas that construct “place” as an entity, which ironically means that he often looks through or beyond the particularity of landscape. In “These Things I Know as Much as You,” for example, he writes, “It is possible, in that pre-day world to ignore the specifics, . . . to simply be in the world” (32). The difference, though, is that Miller’s mythologizing emerges from the landscape and its complicated history, as opposed to being imposed on it. Moreover, rather than literal bushes, in this section Miller asks what is hidden in the bushes of names, of boundaries, in the very idea of a place itself; he contemplates “the landscape before it was landscaped” (“Sometimes I Consider the Nameless Spaces,” 37).

The culminating section brings the book’s two impulses of unearthing and memorializing into a powerful and poignant interaction. Bearing the book’s title, “In Nearby Bushes” is a segmented poem that opens with a report from the Jamaica Star detailing a woman’s disappearance and the later discovery of her body being consumed by dogs “in nearby bushes” (43). The stark prose block, unadorned by title or commentary, echoes the monument-like feel of the book’s first poem. It floats on the whiteness of the page, both light and dense at once—somber. Written in the objective third person, the story itself feels like linguistic “bushes” covering the emotional heft of this woman’s disappearance with its dispassionate reportage. On the following four pages, Miller turns to form to hammer home his point. Each contains a series of quasi-erasure poems using the same block of text greyed out (but still legible, which is important), with a few words in black text. For example, the final poem of the series greys out most of the text, leaving letters that spell out “Here where blossoms the night” (47). This deployment of an adaptive erasure form does important critical work. Erasure poems white or black out surrounding text to reveal a new poem carved from the source text. However, by leaving the source text both visible and legible, Miller forces us to read differently, engaging us in “this sudden abundance of seeing” in which both what is obvious and what might be hidden are visible simultaneously, our eyes registering the facts provided by the source text but seeking out the possibilities that it obfuscates (part XII, 70). He repeats this formal strategy on this and other texts throughout this final section, thus training us to see both the “bushes” and the “bodies” and to read both language and landscape in their full, multifaceted complexity.

In the closing suite of poems, a multipart elegy for the unnamed woman of the obituary, Miller turns his poetic eye to the final grove of “bushes”—death. The poems imagine/describe the process of dying in full and unflinching detail: the decomposition of the body, the surrendering of consciousness, the ongoing processes of the social and natural world; it is “unspectacular, this business of dying, as if any and anybody could do it” (part II.I, 50). Miller names various shades of violence—colonial, gendered, classist, opportunist, natural—that contribute to the end of the victim’s life and within which her dying might be buried. In doing so, he also memorializes the woman, re-fleshing “the rotting fact” of her with body personality, life, kin, and dreams (part XI.II, 69). In this framework of looking, neither the woman herself nor the myriad factors that contributed to the moment that made her death possible escape the poet’s eye, and Miller captures all of it skillfully and tenderly.

In Nearby Bushes is a formally engaging, critically insightful, loving, and well-executed collection. One by one these poems enter the bushes of language and return to testify to the full measure of what was taken from us, what was lost to us, what has been concealed from us, and what we have let slip into the forests of forgetfulness. In so doing, this book challenges its readers to join its project of seeing, unearthing, and mourning and of recovering for the victims of violence and for ourselves the possibility of waking up “in another book, on a kinder page” (part XI.V, 76).

 

Lauren K. Alleyne is the author of two collections of poetry, Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree, 2014) and Honeyfish (Peepal Tree, 2019), as well as co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern, 2020). Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Alleyne currently resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she is a professor of English at James Madison University and the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center. 

 

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[1] The two epigraphs are as follows: “‘. . . the criminal a get way with a whole heap a badniss and your police neva seem to be able to catch them. Dem always escaping in nearby bushes. Tell them fi go inna the bus and catch them if a so it go.’ Jamaican blogger, Paul Tomlinson, writing to the new Commissioner of Police”; “‘I make a distinction between “the nearby bushes” and “in the nearby bushes.” Perhaps it is my corrupt imagination. “In the nearby bushes” equals concealment, danger, while “the nearby bushes” equals a place of opportunity to do what one wishes to be hidden from others—sex, dispose of waste be it bodily waste of household waste.’ Prof Anthony Harriott, Director Institute of Criminal Justice & Security, UWI Mona, Jamaica.”

 

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