The Observances of Kate Miller’s debut collection are more than observations, more than watchfulness; they are imbued with an appreciation of ritual, whether human or, in nature, a ritual-like patterning. Such is her acute scrutiny that for much of the time the poet erases herself, willingly passive in a world intensely experienced.
The first two poems set out her manifesto. “Regarding a Cloud” opens, inverting the landscape:
In the ground is an eye,
satined and turtled,
regarding a cloud.
But it must be earthed here,
as Anthony says, to ‘amplify
From the mundane puddle transformed, she moves to “Promise”, which might have worked equally well as an introduction to this finely sequenced collection. Again, the poet roots, deliberately child-like, in “London / clay, sour with runoff”, and this workaday vocabulary sparkles with three unexpected words, that initially might appear out of register – “ephemeral”, “fossicking” and “netsukes” – but those gold flecks in the washed glaur hold the key to exactly what Miller does. There is always transcendence.
Divided in four sections, a subtle narrative can be traced throughout, touched by family history. Consider how the titular poem of “Life Class” slips from the fully-pregnant life model’s work, “fleshy as a prehistoric Venus”, to end on “soon this dam won’t hold”, then turns the page to the run-on title of “And now you//exist”. The experience of labour is addressed in the second person, without reference to the mother’s part in that event. Again, that passivity is implicit, both in the grammatical construction, and in the narrator’s absence. Everything is observation or in another’s skin.
A highly-qualified observer, Miller studied Art History at Cambridge and Fine Art at St Martin’s. This Janus-faced aspect of her learning, both academic and practice-led, is apparent where sculptures, monuments, buildings and paintings are her subjects, but her verse transcends the simply ekphrastic. Indeed, in some of her most art-centred verse, allows the human, possibly in the form of herself, to emerge slightly more. There is a shuttling between the piece studied, the observer and the process of creation. Sometimes there is a consideration of the figures represented – for example, musing on the experience of women, in flesh, in stone, in galleries, and Miller’s lines move freely between the supposed models, the creating and the gallery contemplation. “Girl Running Still”, focused on the British Museum’s Nereid Monument resonates with both ancient and contemporary concerns. Equally, her studio sensibility is evident in poems like “Landscape in Light Cast by the Moon”, where
the moon, white-overalled, white-masked,
is plaster casting.
Plath is here too.
In their many forms – shape, free verse, strictly stanzaic, patterned and often playfully internally rhyming – these are highly sensory poems. The strict iambic pentameter and its later loss explain “Nelson’s Last Walk”. The sea forms a huge part of this collection; if “House at Sea” remembers Hughes’ “Wind”, Miller’s house is not just metaphorically there: “we hear waves stomp and smack the cellar wall.” When the poet loses her own presence, forces of nature, and perhaps the sky and sea particularly are allowed full personalities in that vacated space. So “A bay is giving birth within black walls of rain” in one poem, while “Rain pats the animal that is the sea, / leads the tide home” in another. Arguably, it is with art and in the sea that Miller finds her best places. Whilst the water can be a beast, or an environmental disaster marker, it is also a scene of frolics and humour, after that “cider wild on New Year’s Eve” when “Lucky, you only lost/the feeling in your hands”. Water and sky even let the poet leave her collection.
The Observances may be a debut, technically, but Kate Miller’s prior experiences in poetry and publishing have more than readied her for publication. This superbly crafted collection is a masterclass in the wisdom of waiting and honing well.