In the chapbook, Like a Beast, Carly Joy Miller interrogates the ways in which the beast is tamed: bridled, harnessed, handled; the beast is put to work until it is led to the slaughter. In Miller’s succinct and razor-edged poems, the human world dissolves into the animal; they can no longer be distinguished from one another. In “Nightshift as Horsebride” the bride is bridled and yet brimful with desire; she resents her husband turned handler until he removes her harness. Here, and throughout Like a Beast, Miller uses the unexpected to her advantage. She uses dark humor, raw language, and an agile line to capture that liminal space between woman and beast.
Miller opens the book with a waitress who has to suck “on twenty / lemons to pucker / my mouth shut” and with a neon Open sign which "sparks and chars / the hair on my wrists." We too feel these sparks and chars while reading this chapbook bitter as a cup of black coffee and transcendent as lemony sunlight bouncing off the aluminum edge of a counter. The poems in Like a Beast whistle and kick, sprung from a serious mind that nevertheless knows how to loosen up in all the best ways. Only Miller could begin a poem titled “Nightshift as Slaughter” with the line: “Hallelujah I’m purposed.” The poem goes on to reference directly Miller’s dark comedy, “Gone the season / of kneeling to my femur / —or is it my humerus, some meat / graying the bone? Dark laughter / behind me.” And yet at times Miller’s poems are chillingly, verging on horror.
Throughout Like a Beast, Miller inhabits the bodies of others, of animals being butchered, or led to the slaughter, or the body of a dead girl waiting beneath mud to be found, to versions of herself: as woman, as waitress, as lover. These poems have confronted death as something commonplace, yet cruel. In one of the most disturbing poems, "Nightshift Waiting for the Search Party," a murdered girl bound in a burlap sack stares upward and describes the sky as "feral cloud / cruel angle above / me." Death is the feral thing that has caught her, this woman in a sequin dress that discovers her legs have been removed from her body. Miller does not flinch from difficult material, she's accepted death as the ground we walk upon.
The chapbook moves from night to day through three main types of poems: nightshift, midshift, and dayshift, as the beast is always at work. In the middle of the chapbook, the poems shift towards themes of desire and love, and yet perhaps the earlier poems were about this in a way; the way we serve love by allowing ourselves to be bridled, to be slaughtered, to be lost. In the prose poem "Midshift Contemplating the Heart" Miller writes, “Apologies: the ones I love loot my cage. Their appetites curl the girl right out of me," it is as beast, instead of as girl, that Miller reinvents herself, and through a seamless use of metaphor, impeccable timing, and emotional urgency, these poems absolutely take flight.
Miller’s vigorous poetry manages to be funny, dark, ironic, and engaging, while maintaining an admirable tonal consistency that binds these poems under one strong spine. Feral and indignant, each poem in Carly Joy Miller’s Like a Beast is like a small tamed beast: wild inside, but bridled. Miller's syntax is entirely her own:
you praise, sweet
thing. Your aperture
no longer a bolted throat:
bellow me back—
I am in your hands you know.
In Miller’s hands the reader dances in unfamiliar ways— in a death dance on bloodied soil to the tune of a jukebox escaping a diner humming with fluorescence alighting on a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or at least, this is what it feels like to read Carly Joy Miller’s delightfully dark poetry. Keep your eye out for her full-length debut Ceremonial, chosen by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2017 Orison Poetry Prize, but for now, add Like a Beast to your chapbook collection while you can.
Like a Beast
Carly Joy Miller
Brunch: Sprouted seed bread toasted and slathered with farmer’s market almond butter, and fresh from the orchard apple butter, topped with sliced apples, blueberries, a dash of cinnamon, and drizzled with honey.