An intriguing early poem here is “Beginning to Paint,” which references the date 18,000-11,000 BC. The ritualistic nature of early cave painting is explored: “as my fingers move, more of him appears: hooves: horns: full body & dark nose—& all smelling of juniper & sweating walls & unforgettable song.” Miller also mentions flutes, the subject of “On Making Flutes (40,000-28,000 BC)” (appropriately enough), thus creating a nice intertextual symmetry.
To my mind, one of the best pieces of the collection is “Those in the Jebel Sahaba Cemetery (10,000 BC),” which is also printed on the book’s back cover. It describes the victims of a 12,000-year-old battle, and insightfully intuits the mindset of those people who buried their dead “in pits with slabs overtop to protect them.” Miller continues, “& you find us all on our left sides: our heads facing south: our hands in front of our faces—you find us all arranged, arrayed, observed.” The slant rhyme of “arranged, arrayed” lends a musical quality to the conclusion, which seems to accord somehow with the reverence imparted to the ancient people with whom the poem engages.
“Trajan’s Bridge (c. 105)” is interesting on a couple of different levels. For one, it is actually written from the point of view of the bridge itself, an inanimate object. Also it addresses the reader, creating a kind of sudden postmodern awareness of this book as book: “I am only two stadiums long yet my length extends to your reading eyes.” The tone is accusatory, indicting the putative reader as shallow, concerned with commerce and transitory pleasures. It ends, “Even the Dacians knew of more than their senses. Consider them, or yourselves—you who are more submerged than me.” The reader of course is invited to see him- or herself here to one degree or another, or may also decline said invitation altogether.
Many of the poems in The Lit World are a comment on genocide and oppression, as for example “The Bulgarian Town of Batak (April, 1876)” deals with one of the various genocides committed but denied by the Turks. “Tecumseh (1811)” delineates a particular response to the genocide committed by the American government against American Indians, while, conversely, “William Tecumseh Sherman (October, 1868)” seeks to explore the viewpoint of a perpetrator. The collection ends with a sequence set in Hitler’s bunker, 1945. So, though Miller’s assessment of human history is ultimately a bleak and at times off-putting one, his poetry itself is absorbingly well-wrought, stripped and direct.