“Elegiaca Americana: Poems” by Claire Millikin; Littoral Books, Portland, Maine, 2022; 136 pages, paperback, $20.

“Elegiaca Americana” by Claire Millikin is a collection of intense poems that track the inner life of the poet from her childhood in the South to her adulthood in New England.

In the large structure of the book, the poems move through an autobiographical chronology, with sections titled “Southern Facade: North Carolina,” “Southern Portico: Georgia,” “Southern Colonnade: Virginia,” “Northern Parembole” and “American Xenia,” containing poems built from childhood recollections onward.

The literal elements in most of the poems are minimally sketched; some seemingly significant incidents are not much more than suggested, and some characters exist only as names. The emphasis, instead, is on what those things seem to mean, or what they feel like, or what territories they occupy in the poet’s psyche. It’s as if each poem has been turned inside out, with the literal meaning partly or fully buried, and what we call the “subtext” (or “hidden meaning”) on the surface. As if the conscious mind were below and the subconscious mind—where dreams come from—above.

This leads to most of the poems in “Elegiaca Americana” having an effect of weird dreaminess. This is summed up visually in color reproductions of four paintings by Michael Droge, which vaguely resemble telescope images of deep-space nebulae. The poems achieve a parallel effect through disconnected imagery; unusual, often puzzling words (parembole, lotic, campestral, crepuscular, grisaille, apodictic); bewildering syntax (“The doors of leaves are innocent, dying into golden / late August, milk of spent weather, / take him to you, / spectral nouns, galactic stories, blue / plastic Jesus atones”); faces and emotions tumbling into and out of focus, as in a dream.

In the poem “Tokens,” the central image of its first section is of a child dancing near a backyard oak tree. The second section then opens with these lines:

 

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The soft criminals persisted,

like those visions of Herculaneum, a library apart.

In motel rooms, the nakedness of my parents burned my vision.

 

None of these images is connected in any familiar way to any of the others. The imagery in the next two sections is by and large similarly unconnected to anything else in the poem. Herculaneum is not mentioned again. Named but essentially unidentified are characters “Hestia” and “Rose.”

This creates a feeling of surreality whose mood, which is pretty uniformly the same through all the poems, is intense and dark, ruminative to the point of brooding, and pregnant with emotional pain. It appears to be the record of a troubled subconscious directly exposed, like an endless bad dream.

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Information from the subconscious, if unsupervised, can be dangerous. The diction and rhythms throughout “Elegiaca Americana” are extremely tightly controlled, creating the impassive, starkly matter-of-fact voice that sets the mood. I imagine this tight control is a way of handling the book’s subject matter, in the way our “cool web of language” is needed, as Robert Graves says, to “spell away the overhanging night.”

Amid the surreal imagery are certain highly conventional themes and motifs. Complicated family and friend relationships; gender frictions; plastic pollution; home/homelessness surface in more and less specific ways. One motif involves the word “Selfie” in titles (“Selfie in Winter,” “Selfie with Ghosts”), suggesting these poems are versions of a genre of American poetry first known as “confessional.”  One image that appears and reappears, contributing chillingly to the book’s weird feeling, is stated directly in “Winter Coats”: “The shadows of birds are bruises on this earth.” If a bird’s shadow seems like a bruise, something inside is in utter agony.

This is all to say that “Elegiaca Americana” makes intense demands of any reader who dares to pick it up.

Claire Millikin, of Portland, is the author of the poetry collections “Dolls,” “Museum of Snow,” “Transitional Objects” and “Motels Where We Lived,” among others, as well as scholarship such as “Photography and Resistance” under the name Claire Raymond. “Elegiaca Americana” is available from local book stores and online through Littoral Books.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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