HOW WE SLEEP ON THE NIGHTS
WE DON'T MAKE LOVE
By E. Ethelbert Miller
Curbstone. 73 pp. Paperback, $12.95
M - A - C - N - O - L - I - A
By A. Van Jordan
Norton. 134 pp. $23.95
"The streets widened and the books got thinner." That is how poet Ece Ayhan described his countryman Orhan Veli's impact on Turkish poetry and consciousness. It also captures a paradoxical less-is-much-more magic at the heart of poetry itself. This magic is powerfully at work in How We Sleep on the Nights We Don't Make Love, E. Ethelbert Miller's most recent collection.
Some of Miller's poems even evoke the casual, abrupt, off-handed banter that Orhan Veli used to transform Turkish literature. But while Veli wrote his miniatures about headaches, pigeons and the urge to ramble, when Miller strips his verse bare, he also sheds his clothes and those of his beloved. Contrary to the sentiment expressed in its unforgettable title, How We Sleep on the Nights We Don't Make Love is irresistibly sexy. Consider "Toothpaste," all nine lines and 29 words of it:
you have the habit
of curling up in
like a tube of
toothpaste all bent
funny and nice
I like to brush
after every meal
Come to think of it, Miller doesn't need to disrobe to make the kind of love you find in this poem, or throughout the book, in which he sings the praise of cunnilingus. He also writes a tiny, tactful poem about fellatio and even lends a moment of erotic dignity to the seldom-sung art of petting and sweating. In "Kiss," his beloved's nipple wears one of his hands "like a hat," which makes him wonder "what should my/ other hand wear?" It is a question put to bed by the concluding couplet:
my fingers so wet
from your rain.
Terrorists are out to get us, soldiers are running around waving guns and the entire world is turning into a filthy, hateful, murderous mess, facts to which Miller also bears witness, but he contends that there should always be a place in poetry for a big, soppy spot on the sheets. As a big, brutal world is momentarily put aside in favor of the warm, small space of the bedroom, the poems shrink as well -- to great effect.
A. Van Jordan is down with that as well. The impact of a tiny poem is so important to him that he writes a tiny poem about it ("Rant"), and its subject is also erotic in an oral key:
nicked skin, I spill blood
now to show the life in me.
dance, cry, glance, crawl, starve,
tongue, flesh, swarm, trap -- girl, see: men
don't need no big words to beg.
They need no big words, nor long poems. Like Miller, Jordan has his mind on the tongue, which licks this poem right between "starve" and "flesh." We are reminded that every tongue is about the same size, not very big, but they pack all the sexual power a human being can conjure and give us language.
Jordan plays with this double duty of the tongue, sexual pleasure and self-expression, in a miniature poem in a nuptial series, "Wedding Night":
let's strip off our words
to speak without our tongues. let's
try to tongue without
saying a word. let's turn speech
back into struggle tonight.
"Struggle": oh yeah, that burden. Miller and Jordan are black men in America and they are mindful of turbulence outside of sex's delicious haven. The poets, who are friends (Miller's name appears in Jordan's acknowledgements), share an interest in historical portraits of struggle. Miller imagines the minds of Frederick Douglass's first wife and a mistress of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Jordan puts himself in A. Philip Randolph's shoes as he recruits union activists.
In fact, Jordan's entire project is framed as a historical poetic sequence. His book tells the true story of MacNolia Cox, the first African American to reach the final round of a national spelling bee (in 1936), whose talent for language languished in adult life, when she worked as a domestic. This sequence is less successful than the best individual poems, however, as the spelling bee fails to support much dramatic weight. M - A - C - N - O - L - I - A contains unfortunate moments of bathos.
Interestingly, longer narrative poems are among Miller's weaker efforts. How We Sleep on the Nights We Don't Make Love includes a sequence about a black girl's friendship with an Arab boy at school. These pieces have the feel of forced good will, as if they are intended to provide a positive Muslim character to compensate for the apocalyptic Muslim terrorists who haunt the book in the refractory passages between sex poems.
One of those poems, "Honey & Watermelons," is an unnerving evocation of a suicide bomber's thought process. It unfolds through seven simple four-line stanzas, with an unnamed man building a bomb while thinking of the legendary host of virgins awaiting him in the afterlife. The final stanza shows that Miller knows something about how to end a story:
A man is walking down
the street with a bomb.
He stops next to a man
who looks like me.
These are the terrors of the present. The old-fashioned American nightmares of racial persecution are reserved for Miller's historical poems. Old bad news and new bad news converge in "Rosa Parks dreams," in which the activist dreams of a bus -- not from Jim Crow America, but war-torn Jerusalem:
woman sits in her seat. There is no
driver today. The top of the bus
The disconnected logic of dreams makes perfect sense of a landscape in which anything could destruct at any time. It's enough to make a person, or a poet, want to crawl into bed and stay there, with or without the extremely good fortune of making love. *
Chris King is editorial director of the St. Louis American.