“Mind Grenades from a Broken Body” Richard Peabody’s Review of Miles’ Collected Poems
Full title: "Mind Grenades From A Broken Body Or The Surreal Life of the Disciplined Spirit." This review appears in "The Richard Peabody Reader" in the "Reading and Writing" section.
Josephine Miles was one of the great ones--a marvelous poet, critic, gifted educator, mentor to the Beats, originator, and remarkable woman
She was in fact the first female teacher to be tenured in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley, where she spent her entire academic career. She was the editor of anthologies and critical texts, and the author of a large body of work, including fourteen critical books on poetic style and language, with titles like Major Adjectives in English Poetry: From Wyatt to Auden, Pathetic Fallacy in the Nineteenth Century, and the three- volume Continuity of Poetic Language: Studies in English Poetry from the 1640’s to the 1940’s. Her accomplishments are all the more remarkable owing to a lifelong struggle with crippling arthritis which left her hunched, bent, and wheelchair bound.
The University of Illinois Press has given us a gift by reprinting the final volume of Miles’ poetic career. When first published in 1983, the book won seven awards, including the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from The Nation, for best book of the year, selected by Josephine Jacobsen, Donald Justice, and Alfred Corn. It was also one of three finalists for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. A.R. Ammons declared this collection, “one of the finest and solidest bodies of poetry to be found in this country.”
The work in this volume drew from Miles’ previous ten collections and added twenty-one uncollected poems. Her wry, witty, playful, poetic voice frequently mimicked common speech patterns and reflected on the passing moment. Gems like:
"We have the generation which carries something new not far enough
And then the generation which carries it too far,
And then the generation which brings it back again."
An esteemed technical poet who wrote books on both the “vocabulary” and “primary language” of poetry, Miles possessed what Hayden Carruth called “an agile intelligence." She wrote about workers, housewives, regular people, David and Goliath, and celebrated the everyday but not in the conventional sense. Miles didn't approach the real world in the way that other poets from the 1930's did, and was completely immune to the emotional confessional poetry of the 1950’s. Her work has more in common with Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke and the dream work of John Berryman. No, Miles was a poet of mind, of intellect, and her work often seems distant by comparison, rendered familiar by the marriage of abstraction to the mundane.
Lawrence R. Smith argues in his essay, “Josephine Miles: Metaphysician of the Irrational,” that Miles while learning from the New Critical readings of the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets, was in many ways closer to surrealism in much of her work. She used logic to unlock the realm of the subconscious, the imagination, and anticipated the shape of poetry to come after World War II. From “Vacuum”:
"In the new lab down on the waterfront
The tides of moon draw, fibers of the heart
Compress, constrict, till from this metal shape
Flows out a foil as thin and consequent
As moon on water and as moon on wing,
As moon on man the gold foil of his brain."
Josephine Miles, Smith argues, discovered the world of the irrational in the everyday. “Among the everyday things which Josephine Miles celebrates are words, particularly slang words and phrases. This is not because she is trying to understand the people in the street who use these terms, but because she is interested in exploring the sheer joy and power of the words themselves, almost as if they were objects or `images.’ “
But as the turbulence of the 60’s caught up everything in its path, Miles’ work became increasingly more agitated and political. Her poems from the 1967 collection, Kinds of Affection, written between 1962 and 1969, are the darkest, yet the following selections from throughout her oeuvre show that Miles was always wielding a political razor.
Strontium 90 is slowly falling out
From the great heights of the Stratosphere,
On leaves, on housetops, on ourselves
When we stand out under the open sky,
It settles down
In the grass which cows mull into their milk,
Which children gulp into their skeletons.
How much of the stuff is now in the skies?
A good deal is up there.
It drifts and settles out,
Half of it in about twenty-four years.
In my wristbone turns up Strontium 90 a-crumble
In your set jaw, its lag.
The mortal dust we have knelt in the dust to
Rises at the horizon, so that we move
Drawing out of the mire and blowing
Clouds of the mire ahead of us as we go.
The largest stock of armaments allows me
A reason not to kill.
Defense Department docs the blasting for me
As soundly as I will.
Indeed, can cover a much wider area
Than I will ever score
With a single sent me on approval
From a Sears Roebuck store.
Only the psycho, meaning sick in spirit,
Would aim his personal shot
At anybody; he is sick in spirit
As I am not.
Restraining Harlem Cosmetic Co.”
They say La Jac Brite Pink Skin Bleach avails not,
They say its Orange Beauty Glow does not glow,
Nor the face grow five shades lighter nor the heart
Five shades lighter. They say no.
They deny good luck, love, power, romance, and inspiration
From La Jac Brite ointment and incense of all kinds,
And condemn in writing skin brightening and whitening
And whitening of minds.
There is upon the Federal Trade Commission a burden of glory
So to defend the fact, so to impel
The plucking of hope from the hand, honor from the complexion,
Sprite from the spell.
In a review, Gwendolyn Brooks said, “This is not poetry to be used for lullaby purposes. Eye and ear must stand awake, or much of the beauty and intellectual significance will remain on the page.”
Miles died too young of pneumonia just two years after this book was originally published. She is remembered today by several literary awards given in her name, including the Josephine Miles Literary Censorship Award. I can think of no better way to remember the spirit of a woman who championed the work of Allen Ginsberg, insuring his initial book publication.