Introduction, by Fred Marchant
In “Shadow Play,” one of the many extraordinary poems in Tartessos and Other Cities, Claire Millikin outlines where we are going in this book. “We will go down,” she writes, “into the slant light of our souls,” and we will see “under the dirt horizon, solum, / this stain of time, sima, shadow.” Lines as strong and deft as these call out for more than a moment of the reader’s thoughts and feelings in response. One thinks for instance of Emily Dickinson’s slant of light, the one that oppresses us with heavenly hurt and makes a difference down deep where the meanings are, how the landscape holds its breath when it arrives, and how when it leaves that light is like the distance—the pure otherness—in the open eyes of the dead. One thinks also of the other kinds of literary journeys into the under-earth, Dante’s journey into the pit of hell for instance. One thinks also of the beachside pit Odysseus digs, the way he performs his rituals and thereby opens an aperture in which he can witness the dead come forth to speak with him.
And beyond literary antecedents, one senses in these lines and this book as a whole an ongoing and relentless descent into the deepest parts of mind. We are going to go below every consoling and seemingly stable surface we know. We are going to probe beyond the “dirt horizon” and into those strange layers of being that are connoted by those interesting geological words “solum” and “sima.” We are indeed going on a journey into the shadow land of being, where the specimens we find will need if we are to be at all precise, some words we’ve hardly have ever used. The past will not be so much a foreign country, but a myth of a lost city, that if we search as long and hard as these poems do, will prove to be true, perhaps worse or more unbearable than we can allow ourselves to remember, but real nonetheless. Something like the city of Tartessos, once thought to be merely a mythical trading port on the Guadalquivir River in Andalusia, a city that more recent excavations have shown to actually exist. As Millikin says in her opening note: this is a book of poems about losing cities, and how losing them turns out to be a way of re-discovering and recovering them as real.
But what are those “other cities”? There are some cities of the poet’s adulthood, the places in which she wanders, works, loves, has children of our her own. But then there is another city she carries within. To call it the city of childhood is to make it sound too innocent. It is more accurately called the city of childhood trauma, of what seems or feels like father-daughter sexual abuse. I say “seems or feels” not to dodge the question, but to give a sense of the way these poems glance off this subject, how the sexual abuse appears and disappears, how it need not be the central or the most visible “event” of a given poem, but like that slant of light nonetheless colors and shades everything it touches.
I also want to say that this book does not compose itself into a clinical study in verse, nor is it simply a victim’s complaint. Without a doubt there is a deep, barely speakable wound, an atrocity and the recoil from atrocity driving these poems. The reader senses the deepest bonds of trust have been violated early on. And one feels the terrible never-ending present-tense of the wound, the way the memory of it is always fresh, and ready to intrude. But there is something more at work in these poems than the dialectic and dynamics of trauma, something that perhaps artistic practice alone is able to accomplish.
Seamus Heaney in his essay “The Redress of Poetry,” argued for the value of poetry that responds to the unacceptable and horrific aspects of experience. He said that if our experience is at times a labyrinth, “its impassability can still be countered by the poet’s imagining some equivalent of the labyrinth and presenting himself and us with a vivid experience of it.” That constructed image of the experiential labyrinth thereby offers the mind a chance to, in Heaney’s words, “to recognize its predicaments, foreknow its capacities, and rehearse its comebacks.” Something on that order is what Claire Millikin offers us in these poems. There is at times a maze-like feel to the book, and to feel lost in a maze can be as fearsome as it is bewildering. But throughout this book, you’ll find there is also a deep and abiding desire to map the terrain. The poet wants to find her way through the maze, and in the process, she takes us with her, giving us some emotional and spiritual coordinates to help us in our own labyrinths. In “Map of the Night,” Millikin tells us
a map is an internal thing
written in the mind, where it must be
to find the way, because dusk in winter blurs
so far you cannot see.
A map alone does not solve our problems, heal our wounds, or save our souls. But it gives us a chance to find our way, and that is the deepest, most humane lesson in this wise, artful, and deeply moving collection of poems.