Thursday, June 29, 2017

Billy Mills, The City Itself

Billy Mills’s new collection, The City Itself (Hesterglock Press, 2017), employs compact and intricate soundplay, occasional lyric flashes, documentary historical material, and even personal narrative in order to make an argument about the interplay between urban and natural spaces and human beings’ place in the network of things. Divided into five sections plus a “Coda,” the book might initially seem like a patchwork or amalgamation of unrelated pieces, but an attentive reading quickly reveals that certain overarching themes wend their way throughout: access to housing, humanity’s role(s) in the continuum of the environment, the ephemerality of existence, and language as a material (if imperfect) medium for knowing the world, among others.

The book’s first section, “A Short History of Dominick Street,” incorporates found texts on the subjects of living conditions and poverty in that area of Dublin, where Mills himself was born. Drawing on newspaper accounts and books, this material goes as far back as 1847 to document a series of bread riots, continuing on to focus on the deterioration of this once upscale part of Dublin (which descended into slum tenement housing by the turn of the twentieth century). Mills also incorporates transcripts of Dáil debates on these issues from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. In so doing, he sets the stage for wider explorations of the need for home and shelter in what I guess we could term an impersonal universe, or perhaps more to the point a laissez-faire, free-market economy.

This technique of including found materials calls to mind the documentary (and often political) work of American poets in the 1930s-40s: William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead” (in her collection U.S. 1), Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda, and Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (both Rukeyser and Long before her similarly replicate U.S. congressional transcripts in their works). It is interesting to see Mills do this in an Irish context, at the same time bringing a new perspective to the genre. It is something we are encountering again in contemporary American poetry (Layli Long Soldier’s recent collection WHEREAS being one salient example, and Tyehimba Jess’s Olio also immediately comes to mind), but not so often today in Ireland and Europe as far as I know.

Having thus elaborated an historical backdrop, which anticipates themes and tropes he returns to later in the book, Mills proceeds with a series of imagistic poems titled “Pensato” (I previously reviewed a selection of them, here). These utilize short, clipped lines and are often dense with assonance, slant rhyme, and alliteration. The first piece reads simply, “listen / do not // sing it is enough” — and indeed these are poems worth listening to. One example is:

low in the west
against the almost
dark the finest
waxing crescent (56)
Here, we hear the assonating ‘o’ sound in “low” and “almost”; the near-rhymes of “west,” “against,” and “almost”; “west” picked up by the rhyme with “finest”; the ‘w’-alliteration of “west” and “waxing” connecting the first and fourth lines; vague sound echoes throughout with the harsher ‘k’-‘x’-‘cr’; and finally the ‘ess’ that links “west,” finest,” and “crescent.”

The poem is also very close to a haiku, with (perhaps coincidentally) 17 syllables and the focus on presenting an image from nature that is both simple and revelatory. Often, though, these “Pensato” pieces are closer to early Gaelic poetry, which similarly tends to focus on nature through impactful and concise language. As Mills himself has written in an ecocritical essay titled “Sustainable Poetry,” “From the 8th century haiku-like lyrics of intense perception to the onomastics of the Metrical Dindshenchus, medieval Irish nature poetry concerned itself with the stubborn actuality of things and of the odd relationship between those things and the words used to name them.” Though he refers specifically to the work of Maurice Scully in this regard, Mills brings a similar approach to his own writing, as set forth in this piece:

that there are things
& that these things are
as they are
& nothing is implied
other

everything spins
indeterminate
patterns of light
of stuff a world
explicable & strange (37)
This poem could be said to encapsulate both Mills’s approach to the material world and to poetry/language as a material thing in the world (one could even draw a connection here to the Objectivist poets of the first half of the twentieth century). That the world is “explicable” is at least partly ironic — it is explicable to an extent, but as Mills also writes in “Sustainable Poetry,” the poetry that he aspires to create “asserts that many things are that have never been perceived, and that for most things that are perceived, the perception is imperfect.” And that is okay too; they can simply remain “patterns of light.”

Following “Pensato,” the next section (utilizing prose) is “The Island.” It locates itself in the city of Limerick, combining history with a first-person personal perspective as Mills explores intersections between natural and urban space. Commenting on the dark limestone used to build many of the city’s structures, he writes, “In a sense, the fabric of the old city has grown out of the earth in which it sits” (65-66). This geological linkage between landscape and city is reminiscent of Manuel De Landa’s observation in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997) that “We live in a world populated by structures — a complex mixture of geological, biological, social, and linguistic constructions that are nothing but accumulations of materials shaped and hardened by history. . . . In turn, these synergistic combinations, whether of human origin or not, become the raw material for further mixtures” (25-26).

Like De Landa, Mills as an eco-poet is interested in understanding the ways in which people interact with, think about, and live within the environment. Also coming into renewed focus in this section is the theme of home and our need for livable housing. Part of “The Island” harks back in tone and strategy to the first section, with further reference to Irish government debates and initiatives for public housing schemes. There is a sense of fragility, with both socio-economic inequity and flooding from the River Shannon threatening Limerick’s inhabitants — setting this up, certain lines from the preceding “Pensato” section depict the violent action of a flooded river, with a floating tree trunk seen smashed up against a bridge (e.g. p. 46).

Thus, as the collection progresses, we begin to see its different threads coming together or being revisited in new contexts. The title section, “The City Itself,” builds on Mills’s earlier, tentative thinking about natural versus built environments, now positing the city as a continually evolving idea: “the city itself held in mind // as once it was imperfect & lovely / as it still is & will be” (71). Because it is in a state of endless becoming, both as a city “itself” and as a part of the wider weave of time and landscape, the city is also “never itself” (74) and “not itself” because “it fades / lacks definition / time wavers. . .” (79). Mills’s own perspective similarly moves, like the grass in the breeze, coming to see the city as a liminal space that cannot be completely separated from nature, its litter and detritus mixing with the plant-life that envelopes the city’s outskirts.

In “The City Itself,” Mills also writes that “this human name / is not itself anything world / closes in & night with its sleep” (81). There are multiple meanings here, with the enjambed lines setting up two immediate and related possibilities: that the word “city” cannot wholly contain the ever-changing entity that it denotes, either physically or conceptually; it “is not itself anything.” What then to make of “it is not itself anything world”? As Mills avers in “Sustainable Poetry,” “The physical sciences take [the] view . . . that the world is essentially physical, and that languages, including mathematics, are tools we can use to create increasingly accurate maps of it.” Clearly, then, as a thoroughgoing materialist, he does not aspire after some ideal vision of the city that transcends the grubby physical day-to-day “world.” Rather, the emphasis is on the limitation of our own tools for understanding of the world, and the inability of language to completely encompass it, foregrounding the poet’s work within that awareness.

A third idea is also embedded in those same lines, the “world / closes in & night with its sleep,” which relates to one of the volume’s aforementioned overarching themes, home or having a safe “place” in the world, a habitation. The penultimate section, “On the Bridge,” picks up on all of these ideas, self-reflexively questioning the “I” as subject, observing a heron from a bridge, and undermining the presumption that language can bring over the object, the thing itself: “This is a sentence about a place. Of course, it isn’t” (85). Mills is also conscious of avoiding the tendency to anthropomorphize the heron he observes perching on a rock: “It is tempting to call it patience, but the bird simply has nothing else to do, no concept of anything else to do” (88). Finally, there are two herons flying, one of whom lands on a “branchless trunk” and “Settles. A nest” (89). There is again wonderful, clear imagery here, and perhaps even metaphor (herons settle on their nests in the river, which as we have seen is subject to flooding, just as we make our homes where we can, be it corporation housing or even if necessary in slum tenements).

The two poems of the “Coda” sum up and recapitulate the ideas that Mills has been working with throughout The City Itself. The first focuses on the ephemerality of human civilization and our attempts to carve out a permanent place for ourselves in the universe:

cities visible below
spread in the night the
darkness broken

clusters of light of
energy expended
to banish that which

surrounds us. . . (93)
In other words, the city light we generate to protect ourselves from the “darkness” (of death or harm) are mere flickers. Or, as the end of this poem suggests, our lives and words are merely “carved // in air” or “a shape / on the river / here & then not” (93). It is of course simply the reality of corporeal existence, which Mills renders poignantly yet unsentimentally.

Finally, we are left with “words that name nothing / that sound outside themselves,” along with the images of the birds, the river, and a heron’s eye watching a watcher, itself catching a glimpse of “the city’s curve” (94). There is a hint here at the end of some broader philosophy, one that affirms the materiality of the world and of language while remaining agnostic about first causes — “what happens hidden feed / & flows a source appease / this moment again” (94) — where the sounds this poetry makes in the moment are of equal import to the “message.”

As a multigenre work, Mills’s The City Itself juxtaposes heterogeneous materials in consonance with the De Landaian perspective, creating “synergistic combinations” of modes and sources that in this book “become the raw material for further mixtures.” It is a subtly absorbing reading experience, and as a collection it exemplifies some of the author’s familiar poetic strategies (if indeed you are familiar with his work), while perhaps looking forward to even further “synergies” and “mixtures.”