Review | Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller
By Jack Solloway
‘We are no longer quite here and not yet there at all’, writes Anna Freud in 1938. Nazi troops have arrived in her home town of Vienna, and she is soon to leave the city, along with her father, Sigmund Freud. Despite her father’s ill health, Anna will flee to London with her family, where they will live in exile during the war: ‘no longer quite here’, their home has become estranged under occupation, ‘and not yet there at all’, since their escape remains uncertain.
For New Zealand poet Alice Miller, living in Vienna eighty years on, Anna’s words echo throughout the city to form the epigraph to her second collection. Published by Pavilion Poetry, Nowhere Nearer begins in ‘Freud’s town’ and moves through a series of cities, often returning to Vienna, as it pulls between feelings of displacement and belonging, at things that are ‘no longer quite here and not yet there at all.’
Haunted by apparitions of the past, Miller has written a curious and searching book that elegantly balances themes of love, loss and remembrance. This slim volume of poetry is incredibly ambitious in scope, claiming to tackle the circularity of thought, the company of the dead and ‘the futures we never let happen.’ In her debut The Limits, Miller took to exploring the edges of the natural world. Her new book attempts to reach beyond those limits.
Prior to winning the Katherine Mansfield prize for fiction in 2009, Miller received the Louis Johnson Writer’s Bursary for her poetry manuscript Farflungness, prone to. Often prone to farflungness herself, Miller’s poetry travels across borders and between countries. In Nowhere Nearer she takes us to ‘an art academy in America,’ along the canals of Amsterdam, before finally settling in Berlin. She has even spent time living in Antarctica – a place so vast and indescribable, she told Radio New Zealand, that the ‘constant silence [of it] . . . becomes like a sound.’
As with many of the locations in the collection – train stations, observatories, graveyards – Miller’s poems are in-between places that regularly look elsewhere, to distant times and locales, for those ‘likewise or elsewise universes’ that uncannily reflect our own. ‘Like Anna’s father, Sigmund, it is Miller’s who ‘in 1947 . . . is always traveling’ to escape ‘with his father from their bombed-out London / life to a pinprick on the map called / Norfolk Island.’ Both families sought refuge abroad, before eventually calling another nation home.
Perhaps, as one poem worries, ‘false similes’ like these are merely a way of ‘fooling foreignness into feeling familiar.’ (As Miller remembers it, Norfolk Island is always a point of departure, ‘always the year I leave.’). And yet, Nowhere Nearer is a triumph in grappling with foreign quantities. Her poems are ‘simile soft’ and ‘anachronistic’ – they look beyond borders, striving to articulate those undiscovered countries barely visible to the eye. What is ‘home’ for those who have left it behind? Where do we go once ‘the gradual unravel of a brain’ has run its course?
There are no straightforward answers to these questions. To either, we might say, as Miller does of the previous century, that our understanding comes ‘nowhere near.’ It is difficult, for example, to comprehend what happens to us after death. More difficult still is the task of writing about such possibilities. We often think of death as a farflung place, similar to Miller’s Antarctica – a kind of ‘nowhere’ or no man’s land – best defined by what it lacks. For many, its geography consists of ‘constant silence’ and may be heard ‘like a sound’ by those who have lived close by.
If nowhere is a place we can get closer to (and the blurb suggests it is), we might imagine something along these lines. However, the landscape Miller presents us with is altogether more urbane when compared to the silent wasteland of Antarctica. With its talk of unreal cities, winters and fogged up windowpanes, Nowhere Nearer instead recalls the half-deserted streets of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Moreover, the collection feels bare and tensed at times, almost post-war in temperament.
Off the Ringstrasse, in Leopoldstadt by the station, or down in the crypt of Diocletian’s Palace, Miller creates a memory theatre of locations, reminding us that ‘violence / can be gentle’ and that hope lies in uncertainty. A narrative slowly reveals itself with each poem, at once defiant and wryly candid about our future. There are poems on ‘How to Remember’ and ‘How to Forget’ – they ask, ‘Are you there,’ like the man in ‘Observatory’ who speaks ‘into his phone’ and receives no answer. In the silence that follows, you can almost hear the dial tone: ‘A magnificent storm is coming.’
Miller is sensitive enough to leave room for silence in her poetry. She offers us a ‘language of gaps’ and begins her collection by telling us that ‘what I am failing to say’ may be the thing that matters most. In ‘Boy’ children glue feathers to their arms, not long after hearing of the death of Icarus, hoping that one day they too might test their wings. In ‘Out of this World’ a woman kicks a nearby fence, then attempts ‘to catch a train out of the world’ by jumping onto the tracks. The poem ends with the narrator beginning to do the same.
What Miller fails to say is often deafening. Her troubling euphemism ‘to catch a train out of the world’ brazenly swaps suicide for the stars, though neither poem goes so far as to articulate the tragedies they tease. As each poem stumbles into the next, the reader is left to grapple with the last: ‘Observatory’ follows ‘Out of this World’ (to continue the interstellar metaphor), which also directs our gaze heavenwards. The silence that follows the man’s question (‘Are you there’) coyly prompts us to wonder who ‘you’ might be, and whether ‘heavenwards’ is an appropriate term. By this point, ‘Clouds pull in more clouds’ and whatever lies beyond them is obscured.
Writing about unknown quantities, Miller’s poetry can be evasive. Euphemism, for example, is itself a failure to say something, an escape into metaphor – and there are none so many as those about death, whether it’s pushing up daisies or meeting our makers. Where a neat metaphysical poem such as ‘The Lever’ successfully pulls off some tricky twists and turns, rather like a modern-day John Donne, ‘Europe’ gropes for a secure handle on the subject: ‘Today,’ Miller writes (italics gesturing intently at something generally felt), ‘we’ll push past . . . / beyond our shifting grain of skin and eyes’ to a place where we ‘cannot take our ruins.’
Reading a poem like ‘Europe’ – with its great beyonds and ‘unsolved’ selves – it is hard to feel as though we have come any closer to asking the right sort of questions about where we go when we die. For the most part, Miller prevents her poems from escaping into metaphor (‘When metaphors eat the real’ is one of her euphemisms for death), rather she acknowledges that this comes with the territory. If cliché is where poetry goes to die, Miller manages to breathe new life into ‘exhausted words’ and phrases that have become shorthand for topics we would rather be euphemistic about.
Putting pressure on words such as ‘love’ and ‘death’ to surprising effect (often interchangeably), Miller finds humour and vitality alongside moments of consolation. ‘No one’s here for much,’ Miller shrugs, ‘except / perhaps these high windows boasting sky.’ The line balances throw-away candour with an elegant, even wistful image. One of Miller’s favourites, windows often double as mirrors, and are mentioned eight times throughout the collection, although there are many instances in which the speaker is reflected figuratively in the landscape.
Much of Miller’s poetry is about sewing together moments of similarity and difference. The thought of ‘high windows’ is probably borrowed from Larkin’s poem ‘High Windows’ in which he looks past the windowpane to ‘the deep blue air’ beyond it, ‘that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.’ Leading us to the title of the collection, Nowhere Nearer might have ended up neither here nor there, chasing after shadows, which are nothing, and are nowhere, and are endless.
Instead, Miller melds memories of real locations with historical fact to produce standout poems – most notably ‘Eva Braun in Linz’ – that test our sympathies and connect us with the past. ‘Are we sorry they set her up with him?’ asks Miller. Probably not. However, the very existence of Eva Braun, as the lover to whom many consider the poster boy of evil, should give us pause for thought.
Perhaps a good definition of memory, to mend Anna’s phrase a little, is the ability to imagine things that are ‘no longer quite here, and yet not there at all.’ As either Freud would tell us, history, like psychoanalysis, is as much about ‘the futures we never let happen’ as the ones that did. Similarly, Miller’s best poetry lies in the collision of personal and national histories, between her own private hopes and fears and what we know to be publicly recorded.
Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.