The Limits by Alice Miller

The Limits. Alice Miller (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2014). ISBN 9781869408060. RRP $25. 51pp.

Reviewed by Thomas Hamill

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It’s funny when your pre-conceptions are torn up and something new and delightful appears in their place. For example, I recently ordered a seemingly bog-standard apple crumble in a restaurant in Auckland, only to find an oaty crumble in a neat pile, to the left of a steaming hot apple fruit compote. A perfect dusting of cinnamon neatly encircled the entire affair. This is known in foodie circles as a ‘deconstruction’. It was delicious. My approach to Alice Miller’s seemingly understated collection The Limits was similar. Early forays into Miller’s poems led me to believe I was heading into soft and whimsical poetry, filled with a gentle musicality. However, much like my deconstructed pudding, the more I looked at the sum parts, the more I was taken into something extraordinary and delicious.

Miller is an ex-pat New Zealander who lives in Germany. Miller was already established as a multi-award-winning writer when The Limits, her first full-length collection, was published in 2014. The fact that Miller now lives abroad is no surprise. The Limits is laced with an overtone of fascination with things beyond the shores of Aotearoa. We are guided through poems that talk of ‘St George attacking forever a dragon’ in “Crowd”, to feeling encased in ‘humid … wooden skin’ in a poem that speaks to Greek mythology in “Morning in Troy”. From ancient Britain to ancient Greece, all through the voice of a New Zealander. The threads of myth weave their way through the collection. Even poems that do not speak to mythology on the surface overtly reference something greater than humanity. It is as if we are the playthings of great gods, be they Rūamoko or Zeus. We see this juxtaposition best in “Apple”:

The night the earth’s crust cracked

Under us, great
Hands reaching

To brush the earth’s skin

There is a Homeric grandiosity in such seemingly simple syntax, and it is a device used extensively in the collection.

The collection is broken up into four sections. Three of these feel very personal: “Skin”, “Body”, and “Steps”. However, there is something misleading about this. The only downside to this collection is that the poems themselves avoid direct connection between poet and reader. Although there is romance, emotion, and intimacy in many of the poems, I never see myself or the direct voice of Miller in them. This is partly because there seems to be so much intellectual heft needed to fully appreciate some of the metaphor, almost like a series of in-jokes between two intellectuals that are designed to alienate the layperson. The prior knowledge needed to understand the complex relationships between composers Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Robert Schumann (entwined in a deeply challenging love triangle with Clara at the centre) in the poem “Album of Breath” is not for the fainthearted and means that the lines:

… do these snaps – one composer
gone mad, in a river, one beauty doing

as beauty always does; and one Brahms, a pianist
whose hands stretched
   two octaves

could well be lost on many readers. Of course, many poetry readers appreciate all arts and I am surely doing them a disservice. But this isn’t an isolated incident, and many of the poems in the collection need prior knowledge to fully appreciate their meanings. Consequently, there is little for the casual reader.

Contrary to this, if ever a collection deserved a third or fourth reading with Google handy for any questions or clarifications, it is this one. “Ocean” is a beautiful poem that starts with an opening line that seeps of politicised anxiety. It hints at the destructiveness of colonisation but is never preachy: ‘We make a map to throw upon the world /to catch the unknown islands’. Tangata Whenua seem to have a role throughout the collection, if not directly, such as in “Ocean”, but Te Ao Māori seems to underpin much of the writing. Consequently, nature is treated with appropriate deference throughout. In “Wet”, ‘The lakes were incapable of being owned /they turned /wild.’ And in a reference to the importance of whakapapa, they ‘always remembered their mothers’. Here Miller hints at the faults of modernity, how it inexorably encroaches on nature and removes something of beauty with a mere ‘streetcorner’. The collection itself is prefaced with a quote from “Of Being Numerous” by George Oppen, which states:

They gathered in council
And spoke, carrying objects.
They were credulous,
Their things shone in the forest.

I believe the ‘they’ refers to Māori and through this lens, the collection really sings. I was not surprised to discover that Miller worked at the Waitangi Tribunal.

The Limits is in many ways extraordinary. Miller voices magnificence and vulnerability, grandeur and minutiae, often all in the same poem. Time, place, and person are all very transient, and often push you as a reader to the limits of your perception. If you are up to the challenge and want to be swept up in some first-rate and delightful poetry, then grab a copy of Miller’s first collection, sit down with your deconstructed apple crumble, and simply enjoy.

Thomas Hamill is an English Literature graduate (University of Warwick), now living in Tāmaki Makaurau. Inspired by nature in Aotearoa, he loves exploring this theme in his own writing.

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