I first read August Zero for a course in Postmodern Poetry at Sonoma State University back in 1996. I append the "reader's response essay" I wrote at the time:
“There was this seduction/ by the shells, the stones, the wind, aided by our thirst.” (Blanks For New Things) Jane Miller immerses us in a material world, where the actual substance of things carries a charge. She creates a distinct and dazzling imagery, with little use of metaphor. In Any Two Wheels, she goes even further and actively deconstructs figures of speech, “that pair in the tunnel of love/-and it is a tunnel, and it is love.” She returns the words to their referents and reverses the process of abstraction, wherein “we are/ being made into words even as we speak.” (Poetry) She pierces the mediated experience of late 20th century American culture with the tangible weight of flesh and blood and wood and stone.
Miller successfully calls forth the presence of things in her poetry. She lists and she names; branch, bridge, wood, ramp, ballpark, airport, headlamps, mall, cement, etc. (The Poet) This naming becomes both a chant (an invocation) and a conversation. The interchange initiated takes place both off and on the page, as Miller also chooses a conversational tone when performing her work. She seeks to thus ease her listeners and readers into the more difficult aspects of her poetry (e.g., the many leaps of association and juxtaposition). Hers too are the manners of seduction, refined with music and color, yet based in a language so actual that it is like “the bare earth, packed hard and nailed/ to the tune of the unconscious.” (August Zero)
In Flames Light Up The Rough Walls and Earnest Faces, Miller lays out her mother’s tablecloth for us and reveals our human fate, unequivocally linked to the fate of the material world. Each of us has a stake in the folding and unfolding of the cloth, our hands smoothing the creases, “touching language directly.”(Any Two Wheels) If words can become acts with which we “fiercely participate in a disappearing place” (The Poet) then suggestive words may also be our last defense against the “indifferent men with indifferent plans” (Flames...) who have built the condos wherein beauty can only endure as a treasure passed from mother to daughter. Miller recognizes this subversive potential in language and the poet’s inclination and task, which is to do “the serviceable and natural thing,/ the illegal thing of keeping the language alive.” (Turning Over The Earth)
“We name the world with a word in mind,/ and then locate the thing in the leaves.” (Into a Space My Time Has Gone) The language comes back to life when the process of abstraction is reversed, when ideas are returned to matter. In Sequel, Miller turns our reality around when she says, “Let the illusion of time be a woman racing in heels on smooth stones for a train.” Language is both act and abstraction, however. Thus its alignment with the material world will necessarily be approximate. The word is ultimately not the thing, but evocative language can bring us into the presence of the real. Miller acknowledges that “we can’t touch exactly/ but attempt a profound correlation.” (August Zero) The truth of lovers is also the truth of language.
In her poetry, Miller takes on a certain responsibility, that of speaking “with the least important/ least visited, raped, riddled/ speech in nature.” (The Enchanted Forest) and, in so doing, avoiding the “false immortality of imagery.” (Screening) Hers is an ethics of reclamation, of shoring up, of finding both the words and the acts that will give “every mountain...back pinecones” (Beauty) and that will once again “help us/ spend the night.” (Cast From Heaven) This is fit and arduous work for lovers; lovers of language, lovers of men and women, lovers of this “curve in space.” Jane Miller is doing this work well, seducing us, exchanging with us “the material body of our message/ the joy in true contact/ with things, merciful things.” (The Enchanted Forest)