Review by Michael Luke Benedetto
In Matt W. Miller’s Club Icarus, his second collection and winner of the 2012 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, the opening pages offer two epigraphs: the first, a quote from Virgil’s The Aeneid, and the second, lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light.” Miller’s readers can expect to navigate the spectrum between these two poles as they are confronted by densely constructed and intricately woven poems, as well as simpler, more lucid pieces, all the while unraveling the familial narrative of a man struggling with losing and becoming a father.
Death and loss are ubiquitous in the four sections of Club Icarus, and though contemplative ruminations and narrative vignettes are interspersed throughout, the slow, debilitating decline of Miller’s father is always lurking nearby, in a photograph, under a bridge, in distant childhood memories, or an open letter to a famous NFL player. Many of the characters that materialize out of the collection’s linguistic snapshots are intriguing for the few stanzas they occupy, but it is clear that the true power behind Miller’s narratives comes from the metamorphosis of family across generations.
It is difficult not to be simultaneously enticed and alarmed by the language in these poems, often luring the reader in with smoothly compacted alliterative verse, which may, at any moment, leap from the page with macabre, guttural images. From “Aruba, One Happy Island,” which opens, “Too much salt for our skin but the sun / is the sun again and the sand a warm / whiteness against the stitched lip of winter,” to the speaker in “Exempli Gratia” who wants “forearms scabbed / and scarred from fisting death’s teeth,” readers are treated to the full range of Miller’s poetic talents.
Often in tercets or couplets, these poems are crafted with succinct lines that expand into elaborate and forceful images. Though the majority of poems are written in complete sentences, utilizing standard prosaic punctuation, Club Icarus is not without pieces that eschew this convention in order to reinforce the sense of immediacy that springs from the subject. This is best evidenced in the poem “Partus,” which details the birth of, what is presumably, Miller’s daughter:
Riflebutt the curve of her wool
socked foot into the shoulder shove
her knee down now toward her ear fingers
wrapping hamstrings stretched
Again, Miller’s tightly packed language tumbles forth creating an air of urgency that propels the reader from these opening lines to the culmination of the narrative: the successful delivery of a baby girl.
Though loss hangs heavily throughout this collection, and the Icarian theme is present in many of the poems, a sense of hope occasionally rises to the surface and solidifies around a familial relationship. There is no better example than in the title poem, “Club Icarus,” which closes part two. In it, we are ejected, along with the speaker and his daughter, from a plane that has struck Icarus on his flight. Before meeting his fate at ground level, the speaker sees his daughter one last time as “wings like blades butterfly / from her back and lift her / laughing back into the blue.”
In Matt W. Miller’s prize-winning collection, windows are opened into the lives of tragic figures—a dying father, an ailing football coach, a down-on-her-luck ex-bodybuilder—yet since these tragedies are played out in verse as striking as it is pleasing to the ear, the reader cannot help but be drawn into each brief glimpse before the window closes. Whatever his subject, Miller masterfully paints an evocative scene with language both accessible and stunning.