Monday, December 5, 2016

Monday Muse: Denise Miller's 'Ligatures'

ligature: a thing used to tie or bind something tightly;
the action or result of tying or binding

Ligatures Cover Art

What do lynchings have to do with police body cams and dashboard cameras?

In her remarkable poem "Dear Spectators," in Ligatures (for black bodies), a 2016 Runner-Up for Rattle magazine's annual Chapbook Prize, Denise Miller makes the unexpected, provocative connection: "[. . .] first, consider the noose, that birthmarked // ligature [. . .]" around "postcarded necks of bodies // born brown [. . .]" and then recall Sandra Bland's "[. . .] question marked silhouette—her / 2015 body [. . .]" that "[. . .] looks so much like a 1913 3 & 1/4 by 5 cardboarded brown // body [. . .]" and then look ahead again to 2016 and those black bodies "shot / or dragged / or tased / or cuffed / or pounded against pavement" and "catapulted into / lifeless silent film stars—surrounded by spectators."

The media for witnessing and documenting the "horrible event" we've all come to know too well — then, public, out-in-the-open, eye-witnessed lynchings of blacks that often were photographed and printed on picture postcards for mailing; now, streaming body and dash cam recordings of fatal encounters with police — have changed but cause and result have not.

Just as the Emmitt Tills, Bunk Richardsons, and Mack Charles Parkers were denied a voice and justice in pre-Civil-Rights-Era America, so, too, have their 21st Century parallels — Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Victor Steen, and dozens of other African Americans — been deprived of voice and justice, made spectacle to be shared on endlessly looping and scrolling video on social media and news sites.


Comprising tightly written found poems as well as persona poems in the form of police "confessions" to the deaths of the African Americans who've appeared again and again on our screens, Ligatures draws on contemporary news articles, autopsy reports, and video recordings of and court testimonies, verdicts, and sentences in their cases to establish the undeniable, unsettling, ugly truth of the alternative narratives Miller offers for Scott and Garner, Rice and McDonald and Steen: systemic racism in the United States, where "black and brown / people's stories have been spun so quickly and so / thoroughly so that suddenly our lives seem to justify / the ending of them", exists still.

Here's how Miller imagines officer Daniel Pantaleo's "confession" to Eric Garner's death:

(He was illegally selling cigarettes.)

It was never supposed to be
a chokehold. Just a wrestling
move I learned at the Academy
so I locked one arm under his
slipped the other around his torso—

how else to let him know there is
no sense in resisting? His worded defense—
my hands getting tense—just let me tip
the perp, make him lose his balance.

          Just let me ground him.

More choke than hold, my arm—
the sound of begging, his breath—
his head to concrete, my hand—

my right arm around his thick of neck.
~ "What I Learned at the Academy: Another Officer's Confession (for Eric Garner)"


Just 35 pages long, Ligatures delivers a deserved punch in the gut, restoring what a headline and a hashtag cannot: name, identity, story written by "those people" denied all three. It's not at all "the child friendly bed time story" Miller acknowledges that some of us in America want:

[. . .]
See a picture of a black boy or black girl, a black man
or a black woman, a black person or a black person

and you wonder is she or isn't she, is he or isn't he, are they or
aren't they and each isn't but each is, you wonder is it another
story of or isn't it? [. . . .]
~ from "Dear Spectators 2: A Bed Time Story"

History — his story, her story, their stories — in Miller's series of strong and strongly defiant poems is the present we can't just scroll by. Our shame is, so many more names have been, could be, are still being added.

Denise Miller is not only a remarkable poet; she also is an English professor at Kalamazo Valley Community College, a mixed-media artist, a community activist, and an executive chef. 

Co-founder of Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, a nonprofit in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that promotes social justice via the arts and culture, Miller boasts a long list of awards. Most recently, she was the 2016 William Randolph Hearst Foundation's Charlotte and Robert J. Baron Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society*, a 2016 Fall Willow Books Writer in Residence at the Carr Center, a nominee for a 2016 American Book Award (for her poetry book CORE), a nominee for a 2016 Pushcart Prize (for CORE), and a finalist for the 2016 Akron Poetry Prize. In addition, she has been a finalist for a Barbara Deming Money for Women Fund grant. The recipient of a Hedgebrook residency (2014), she has received a Waves Discussion fellowship from A Room of Her Her Own Foundation and was named 2014 Willow Books Emerging Poet. She also has been awarded an Emerging Artists Grant from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and the Gilmore Foundation.

Miller's collection of persona poems, CORE, based on true stories about African American sharecroppers of the Great Migration, was published in November 2015 by Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press. Her poetry has appeared in such literary periodicals, as African American Review, american ghostBlackberry: A MagazineDunes Review, Outlook Springs, RogueAgent Journal, and Union, and in the anthologies Illness and Grace, Terror and Transformation (Wising Up Press, 2007) and Just Like a Girl (GirlChild Press). 

* Miller's research project during her residency at the AAS was titled "Travelogos: African American and the Struggle for Safe Passage". (See Fellows' Directory.)

Denise Miller on FaceBook

Read Miller's poems "Click-Click, An Officer's Confession", "We Are Taught, Another Officer's Confession", and "13 Seconds on Pulaski, Another Officer's Confession" at Praxis Center.

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