"There is so much sacred in a girl,” writes Wendy Miles in her gorgeous debut poetry collection, Float, waving a wand both magical and tangible in the very first poem. A wand opening the world of the girl’s voice and senses, a voice that sifts through the trees of her family’s farm and fencerows, in sight of the Blue Ridge, with memory as its ground—even as Miles says, “It’s thankless being a memory.” And yet memory is what tethers us to the past and present and gives shape to the future, though often a future of ghosts, sometimes kindly and cherished, sometimes not.
We experience the speaker’s girlhood externally as well as internally—the farm, her pink room, the fields of corn and potatoes and stray dogs and cats, her grandparents’ house, the general store her father operated, her mother’s melancholy and later her father’s illness, the natural world heightened with cycles and moonlit mystery. Fresh details prick the imagination and invite us in with musicality like “kitchen light and pan-clack / saccharine apple trees // bees in the tube of the ear / the song you know…” She tells her childhood in dogs, in jars of canned tomatoes, “in green, in dirt, in clods of red clay, a rusted aqua swing / that sliced my inner calf,” all tied to the place where her father worked the land and left for the store, always her “mother silent, watching.” And within this world, the girl soon to endure “the slick hot / wet of blood” between her legs floats memory to memory, less in narratives than in imagistic wisps composing the whole (though the book contains many fine narrative poems). And doesn’t memory often work that way, like swatches of color torn from the larger cloth, the fibers beckoning us to examine and pry them apart in deeper discovery? Here, Miles writes a haunting dreamscape, an illumination of memory itself: “There where a golden bird is made / golden by October’s slanting light, // through the threshold of the hidden house / the empty clothes are seated in chairs.”
If memory is the golden bird, her Virginia farm is the tether that holds everything together despite life’s losses and uneven machinations. The poem “Tether” is particularly beautiful and telling, a palindrome describing a bicycle accident as “a complicated grief.” Miles writes, “The bike isn’t mangled. Pale ribbons / nest in its handlebars like belief: / the child will return to her life, // wander home older but undamaged…” The bicycle “balanced in a scrap of weedy grass” mirrors the inverted form of the palindrome, where each part counterbalances the other, the tether being both the poetic form and the hard knowledge of falling now possessed by the young speaker, who notes, “Her still luminous long blonde hair will fly” despite the “whirl of wheel, grind of chain.” A voice on the cusp of womanhood, looking once over her shoulder to the bruising we all experience, then ahead with determined fire and light.
You can call Float a coming-of-age journey, as is often true in first collections, but that label doesn’t fully encompass the magical realism Miles employs so well. In addition to the surprise of language and image, Miles takes Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” The speaker says the fields “loll and usher / hay and walnut through my open windows”; she wonders what the horizon would be without the old (her grandparents’) house; she sets the stage: “Thanksgiving / narrates with timer, ice-clink, table leaves lifting.” Such lines soar off the page in both image and sound. The freshness and personification of objects and events paint new pictures in our minds, take our breath. And to create distance from the speaker’s “I” and add a little mystery for the reader, Miles writes variously: my mother, her mother, the mother, the wife—similarly for her father. This tendency recalls a child’s voice, a child trying to parse what she sees as witness from her secret interior as the family’s lives intersect.
The last section darkens as girl becomes woman: Her mother’s crushed corsage in a scrapbook “sprawls like an animal in decay.” “The memories took it hard that year,” she writes of whether her parents would stay together: “Abandoned memories clung to the window. / There was the father. There was the mother, / face streaked behind a roof of hands. // Anyone could have mistaken those memories / for rain the way they wept.” And then the father’s illness, his decline likened to the redbud’s canker that “started in the trunk, spread slowly,” the “gray fist of tumor opening / its too-strong hand...” She asks, “What could help but die?” and at the end, “What else but circle?”
What else indeed, for circle is how memory works, its circuitous path over, under, around, and through, pulling bright threads as it goes, burying others, those things we grieve most. Sometimes we want to see and remember, hold the glimmer to the light, sometimes not. Still, it circles. The fields turn shadowy, the ghost father rakes hay on a tractor in July’s heat. Miles writes, “…there are things we can’t feel. / And in the body of a bird time spools.” Vladimir Nabokov titled his memoir Speak, Memory, granting a human quality to memory, as it is of our human selves and strivings. You can say the same of grief, how it twists and turns, rearing its sorrowful head when we least expect it. Ultimately, we may come to peace and reconciliation, lest we argue ourselves silly and weary, not a good way to spend our days. “If grief is a guest, eventually he will head off to bed in another room, / having said too much,” Miles writes. “Let us not argue. / Whoever we are, memory swings up inside our throats. / Let us be kind. / Our dead. Who is to say how much we love them.”
Yes, let us wrap ourselves in kindness and in what sweet rises to the top. Let us sink into the stunning world Wendy Miles has conjured, both golden and bruising, and float into our own remembered times planted when “there was only the future.”
Poet, playwright, essayist, and editor, Linda Parsons is the poetry editor for Madville Publishing and the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee. She is published in such journals as The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, Terrain, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, Shenandoah, and American Life in Poetry. Her sixth poetry collection, Valediction, is forthcoming in 2023. Five of her plays have been produced by Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee.