Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller / Orison Books / 978-0-9964397-7-0 / 2018
Ceremonial, a debut full-length release from Carly Joy Miller, is praise and rage blended into one. It’s a delicate balance of acrobatics, on a tightrope of tone. Miller has created a collection that speaks of the magic “under a sky that folds/ like an eyelid.” This is a collection of “desire and restlessness” that lives inside us all. Carly works as a contributing editor for Poetry International, and co-founded Locked Horn Press. Her work has been published with journals like Gulf Coast, The Adroit, and the Boston Review.
Ceremonial was selected by Carl Phillips as winner of the Orison Books Prize for 2017, and includes a forward from poet Ilya Kaminsky. Her work has been praised by Carl Phillips as a “post-apocalyptic landscape to be navigated by poems that together become a moral compass — the compass Protean, however, ever-shifting, maybe trustworthy, and maybe not.” Poet Maggie Smith (Good Bones) calls Miller’s poems “wild, restless creatures.” This collection is a follow-up to her debut chapbook, Like a Beast, published by Anhinga Press as winner of the 2016 Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize.
Ceremonial is comprised of three sections with the first being a kind of set-up for the collection’s characters. Section one builds up the myths of the book. What I love most about the opening is the conflict between “beastlike living” and “swanlike collapse”. There is a willingness to be strong, fierce, and grounded, alongside showing vulnerability and grace. It is an exploration of what it means to live like a “beast”, the connotations of the word “beast”, and the meaning this all holds to Miller. Section two builds on this and takes us through moments of destruction, what I imagine to be the “Tower card” of the book. It is the breakdown before the creation. Ceremonial closes with the third section: the breath after diving in waters. In this section, having found the pearls buried at the bottom of the waters, she emerges knowing more about the world in its darkness and light.
Ceremonial is Carly Joy Miller’s debut full-length collection, and we feel as if we are moving alongside the poet as she journeys to this point. The poems within speak to each other and the attention to craft is displayed in the ways the titles alone build their own narrative. I have to agree with the closing of Kaminsky’s foreword. We emerge from this collection spellbound by Miller’s ability to be so real, in her ability to take us along in the journey of discovery, and we find ourselves with hands clasped ready to hear these prayers.
Part of this realness, I believe, comes from the poet’s ability to balance styles of language. We see this especially in “Ceremonial Psalm” when she writes “Blessed art the wild boys/ who cross reveries, all sweet/ milk, sweet tongues.” and later “Blessed art the drowned/ boys, shot/ boys, boys with shoulders/ wide as wandering/ albatross”. There is a sense of ancient biblical speech meshed with a youthful humanness. This and other poems bring the idea of an imagined heaven to our front porch.
It is with this balance of language that Miller creates her own myths in this book. In Ceremonial, she weaves many character portraits and mini-myths while alternating between the use of first and second-person address. In the second section, we can see Miller’s ability to concisely storytell in “Let the record show I was kind with the pick-axe hovered low by my thigh”. This poem tells us about a girl so willing to surrender to the “war against the body”. The memorable closing line, “I want to thrust my hands/ into the earth—press my wildness low.” is where we see this idea again, of being within and a part of the earth. But the idea feels so real and new, because of Miller’s ability to retain the humanity of “dancing tango in churches” as she becomes the creator of this mythical world. By the end of this book we find ourselves in our own version of prayer: holding a ceremonial as a connection to the restlessness within us all and the beautiful beastliness found at our core. I believe this collection will be one that will leave its readers in a post-dream haze, revisiting lines time and time again to find the hidden metaphors, and to satiate their own poetic restlessness.