Kate Miller: The Observances
ISBN 978 1 90618 815 3
Kate Miller grew up in Hampshire and now lives in London.
She was awarded the Edwin Morgan International Poetry Prize in 2008 and has received several other awards. Selected for Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt) and in 2013 and in the 2015 anthology, the Forward Book of Poetry, Kate’s poems have recently been see in Ambit, Long Poem Magazine, New Walk, Poetry Review, The Rialto, Shearsman, Warwick Review, and the TLS.
Her first full collection The Observances, published by Carcanet/Oxford Poets, was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Book Award for Poetry, and the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for First Collection,
In 2012, she completed her PhD while teaching Poetry (modern and historical) courses in the English department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She contributes workshop ideas, close reading prompts and feedback to Poetry classes at Poetry School, Poets’ House Oxford and to schools.
As the title The Observances makes clear, the poems in this collection are greatly concerned with observation and perception. They are grouped into four sections: Wave … Clouds Pass; Life Class; Vigils; Enter the Sea. Within these sections, Kate Miller applies her powers of perception and observation to a wide range of subjects taken from the natural world and from the human world, always striving to capture their essential nature or character. In The Sea is Midwife to the Shore, she describes the tide re-making its tideline on the beach
A bay is giving birth within black walks of rain
And later, she extends the metaphor
It’s then the sea smoothes,
fondles chubby stones, croons over each
peculiar stone and treats it
as its own
newborn, immense and gleaming
nursed on the stretched belly of the beach
In Regarding a Cloud, she describes a
picknicker’s spoon with no handle
by a scalping of growth
and it’s upside down,
mortared in mud
and the spoon then becomes a mirror.
In another of the many poems about water, At the Dew Pond, West Dale, she describes a tiny snake in the cool puree of a pond. It is just one more example of her original and startling use of imagery – imagery rooted in the remarkable intensity and detail of her observation and perception.
Elsewhere, these skills are applied to people of all ages and in a wide range of situations. And Now You examines a newborn baby’s arrival in the world
Practised, you look
already. Hopskip and bowing,
treading measure in a dance
Families walk through the poems, and they too are described in the poet’s characteristically original language and imagery. In Kew Gardens
a pride of pregnant women bloomed
along the gravel paths, juggernauts of happy families
drove swags of babies past.
In contrast, there is a disturbing poem about a homeless youth and the reaction he provokes in the observing poet
Did you kip here?
Are you scared?
It is full of the questions she ponders – and even nature seems to be roused to curiosity or enquiry
crested grebes, crooked like question marks.
In contrast to the homeless youth, the grebes
to a deserted clump of reeds, their nest year after year.
In a later poem, the poet focuses on an elderly couple who complete their individual tasks with quiet dignity before greeting the night together
A canopy of grapes is not so dense
It stops the moon
Tracing their duet. Shooting stars
Flare overhead and they look up.
He helps her to her feet. They step
Into the garden, bowing to the night.
In other poems, it is places rather than people which are the focus of attention. Minding the Antiquarian Bookseller’s House begins:
High on the scent of bindings, I open first editions,
leaves, more leaves. The front room is a dell of books
pushed to the ceiling, mist clinging to their spines,
the letters cut with dust.
The house becomes a landscape and the readers are in it because the poet has a way of situating us precisely in time and place so we can see what she has seen. There are other poems which focus on people and places together and the precise nature of the relationship between them. In Every Book Is a Long Walk, the worn green hardback she is reading up on a headland – a romance perhaps – merges with what she is seeing when she looks up from it and the reader is presented with the chance collision of book and place, the meeting of two seas, actual and imaginary. This is presented as something beautiful. She closes the book but she can still see its heroine:
I walked and saw her faintly,
filmy in the shallows – then braving coarser surf,
undone to her shift and shivering.
grey as in a mirror
in an unfrequented room – passing
to and fro, passed by
as if she were the shoreline
ceding to, emerging from the tide.
In other poems, the focus is on the creative process at work – the poet’s eye and ear, or the artist’s observations. The poem then becomes a painterly expression of its subject.This is unsurprising, given that Miller studied art history at Cambridge before becoming an English lecturer at Goldsmiths. A poem inspired by a Turner sketchbook, Colour Beginnings, imagines the painter witnessing the burning of the Houses of Parliament, where the words become almost a wild impasto
I’ve seen every yellow Earth can conjure,
yet I had only one, and though I’ve made it match
a sunrise, brimstone, saffron, sulphur,
even jaundice, I thought it insufficient here –
those palaces were cracked crucibles, leaking red gold.
In Lines to Convey Distance, she summons a more subdued but no less effective palette
Send me one hundred greys to catch the chill and whip of water
The writing is sensuous without ever losing its focus or lapsing into sentimentality.
The word observance suggests not just observation – but also something religious – or if not exactly religious something devotional, ritual. It is almost as if, in writing the poems, the poet is capturing the accidental and giving it form and coherence. The poems seem to capture the essence of their subject and become almost spiritual – to move from observation to observance.
In Longest Day, the landscape serves the emotion. The poet describes the settled parishes of wood and weeds I hoped would anchor us. The poem’s invisible subject will not remain but the poem itself can be its record.
Before you leave, before the sea returns,
we draw out our walk as far
from houses and the spire as we dare,
salt jade for the passage out.
It grows on mud between the hulls
where broken boats have gone to grass,
become the settled parishes of wood and weeds
I hoped would anchor us.
And still we speak of journeying and home
in port and starboard words
until the pilot buoys and off-shore lights
begin to roll the estuary tar-sleek,
a metalled road beneath first stars.
Nightfall on the longest day
it doesn’t fall. Detaches,
lifts the warmth away.