Teresa K. Miller
76 pages, 6×8 perfectbound
Sidebrow Books 2013
Reviewed by Dennis James Sweeney
sped is not as experimental, from a linguistic standpoint, as it would at first seem. We have all the indicators: lower-case title expressing disregard for convention; / and // instead of line breaks and stanza breaks; white space galore, presenting each block of text the way contemporary art museums present paintings. But the prose, where it is contained, is remarkably comprehensible. For example:
On the train to Faro we sit with an English horticulturalist who keeps saying cheers and brilliant/ scans for a conductor when I eat bread and cheese in my seat
The only thing that strikes me as odd here is that the scene, on its own, might be slightly mundane. But Miller’s trick is, these units of internal coherence are not given in context. Instead they are followed (as is the above) by:
And what if a man who was like your brother but was not did become the Zahir/ what if we both saw it// S’il ne marche pas, je peux revenir, et vous pouvez m’assister, n’est-ce pas?// Once you start talking, you can’t stop the tape until it’s finished// She touched his skin and said Lordy!// Along the waistband, convex or concave//
It is the connections between lines, then—the //s—that are most mystifying. It almost seems as if Miller recorded a series of random phrases, then cut them up and reassembled them with an eye to resonance through juxtaposition. But the fragments, within their sections, are too thematically related for that. If Miller did perform such a cut-and-paste, it was with content that was related in the beginning.
In the book’s first section (“Forever No Lo”), for example, are fragments of: the Rwandan genocide; everyday phrases in Portuguese; an unnamed loved one’s death; gossipy patter in English; and a blind woman boarding a bus in Portugal (among other, less easily identifiable themes). Their presentation in Miller’s form combines to create a sense of speeding through time (appropriately for sped), passing by an international field of contemporaneous events and grasping only fragments of each of them.
But Miller’s approach does not take the language of those she is passing by for granted. We are given a hint as to her goal in a note after the text on “the beautiful continental Portuguese language, transcribed here primarily as butchered, not as used by fluent speakers.” A strange multiplicity of argots are a part of understanding, during the brief time we are given to do so, the worlds into which Miller peeks. In the “The Apiary,” the book’s second section, we notice even more explicitly the juxtaposition of tones: clinical (“In our low-context culture, disability exists biologically within the individual”); literary (“It rose like a cargo plane/ a dirge for the papered-over window/ the crack of light we earn by the cold); spoken (“A chair could earn a C if it sat quietly all year”); straight imagery (“Twelve shoeboxes filled with paper collars from new dress shirts”).
The latter units in the collection also strike me as being more semantically connected, as if organized with a certain guiding focus in mind. This one (outside the book’s three sections, the pieces have no titles), as diverse as its sources are, seems to speak of despair in love:
There are never two close enough to crouch together// We walked from Union Square to Lombard to get the ring for the wedding I knew wouldn’t happen// Emotional disturbance is disproportionate, overly reactive/ irrational behavior without any other explanation// Every car accelerating/ every semi, chains rattling/ someone else has to get there right then// Black and white photographs of children we do not recognize with dogs// We cannot locate it, but disability must exist within the individual//
In the book’s third section, “Programs for Exceptional,” the pieces begin to speed again, while retaining this heightened semantic unity. An image, variously evoked, of a loved one being hit by a car inhabits the section, informing all of its units with a sense of grief. Phrases incorporate “‹––›” mysteriously and repeatedly. The fragments tend toward harmony and nostalgia. A sense of suspense is evoked, and the pages, which have previously taken not a small amount of work on the part of the reader, begin to turn more quickly. By the book’s last lines we get a repetition, though in different words, of some of the images that have been building up:
The Tutsi mother told the murderer You must come to my house every week so I can fed you as my son/ you have taken from me// When you leave your body/ ‹––›// Just the fading memory repetition// Radiating out from lacerations of the brain// The blood of/ kept inside/ so the grass stays scraggle-green// Where do we put all the remainders?// Here// We put them here//
sped’s last few pages, I think, are a triumph. The book requires a significant amount of readerly will and imagination to wade through—it seems sometimes that its purpose is even to spur daydreams, sending you off into your own fantasy of barely-connected thoughts. But in the sped’s last units, when many of the themes of the book begin to be drawn together, you learn that you have absorbed the fragments and made them whole inside you without fully knowing it. And that despite the world’s and words’ quickness—though they seem to have sped past—you have caught something, and it resonates, like you have swallowed the dust of a tuning fork.
Dennis James Sweeney’s short-shorts appear or are forthcoming in Fractured West, Harpur Palate, NANO Fiction, wigleaf and elsewhere. He is the author of What They Took Away, forthcoming from CutBank Books. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon.