Jane Miller is the author of ten books of poetry and prose poems, including the recent Thunderbird, a book-length sequence of poems that moves variously through an emergency room, an ancient olive grove, a movie set, “the night-petaled black heaven,” and ultimately the world of spirit.
Her other recent works include Midnights, in Saturnalia Press artist/poet Collaboration Series, with drawings by Beverly Pepper and an introduction by C.D. Wright; and another book-length sequence, A Palace of Pearls, which received the Audre Lorde Prize in Poetry.
Among earlier collections are Wherever You Lay Your Head; Memory at These Speeds: New and Selected Poems; The Greater Leisures, a National Poetry Series Selection; and August Zero, winner of the Western States Book Award. She has also written Working Time: Essays on Poetry, Culture, and Travel, published in the University of Michigan’s Poets on Poetry Series.
The excerpt published here is from Seven Mediterraneans, a fanciful memoir set in the region dominated for millennia by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Sicilians, and Romans. The narrator’s affairs unravel in a tour de force of literary conventions that includes an unreliable memoirist, an inverted roman a clef, the picaresque, poetry, and magic realism.
She is a recipient of the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award for Poetry, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.
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the opening of the chapter, “Serenity”
I arrive without a thimble of drinking water, albeit triumphant. That is, hang-dogged and alive. I’ve traveled farther south and deeper west into climate created by the Atlantic and the Sahara, where the sirocco dries and drops wheat berries to the ground, kills the trade in wax, wool, and skins, and shrivels mulberry trees. A world where nihil sunt res humanae, nisi umbra et fumus (human beings are nothing but shadow and smoke). Which is a good reminder, I concede, for one recently lovesick and, presently, seasick sailor who has blown into a birthplace of heroes of an early morning.
One of the mythical labors of Hercules was to capture a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides, supposed to have been a hundred or so kilometers from here, outside Larache, a fact that impresses and nonpluses a new arrival regarding immediate challenges. For his part, Hercules was forced to kill the giant Antaeus, whose wife he married and who gave birth to a child. To give his son the birthday gift of a city protected by the sea, Hercules seized the Rock of Gibraltar in one hand and Mount Musa in the other, as if he were moving furniture in an enormous room: he pulled Africa apart from Spain, whereupon the turquoise sea flooded in, leaving a carpet of uninterrupted beaches.
Having seriously less ambitious but no less honorable an interior design, I’m naked now, far from Menorca’s limes, grapefruit, and friendly Xoroguer gin. I rented an unearthly quiet former motel room, tightly draped, from a slight woman with a rectangular mustache and a square hijab, or veil. She pursued my thinning stack of traveler’s checks with her eyes and the attention of a guard, or a god, or a dog—in my state, what could it matter? —until I handed over too much money, a transaction she synched with a final bow.
I have not one dirham extra (in preparation for taking possession of my life, life possesses me) to buy a rug from the medina. Were I not nauseous, nearly broke and, in fact, not myself, I’d purchase a tagine pot to braise a shank of lamb whose flesh I passed, and almost passed out from, in the marketplace. I intend to pile a few tasseled, sequined pillows under my sore body and eat kesra —a flatbread crunchy with cornmeal that soaks up anything, including, I predict, tears.
It feels normal being poor and weepy; liquidity in all its manifestations has preoccupied the species forever. Ancient people topped their earthenware casseroles with cone-shaped lids to capture the steam and juices of stews and, just as adroitly, linked wells to conjure groundwater from great distances for a garden of paradise to become reality. And thus they contrived the water chadars of the Ziza Palace in Palermo and the serpentine runnels of the jannat al-arif, the Generalife, or inspector’s palace, in Granada. A terra of beauty by necessity. Here a people inspired with their harmonious solutions. Centuries and countless droplets later, with an ingenuity diluted by time and circumstance, I colonize my rented room before the first Arabian sun sets. After a night vomiting down into darkness over the edge of an ululating, sea-faring vessel, now, with the flourish of another fatuous comparison, I consider how to flush salt out of the hydraulic system by noon—how, that is, finally to stop bawling. The enterprising ancients of the region might serve as models, being a holy people, for a traveler who, while on her knees all night on a ship, called the gods into question, dishonoring the good Christian and Muslim supplicants soon to be her hosts—with a Jesus Fuck and a Fucking Allah—each time she puked.
I get into a bright, striped dress with a wide red belt, something I would never wear, and wrap my curly hair in a scarf, having read that hiddenness allows a woman to keep parts of herself secret. I wonder if I can be a woman in this culture if I am a camel on a rope in a desert, aimlessly following custom. The veil of the Muslim woman serves as a blinding insult, or as protection against an unwanted gaze? When the veil is not worn by choice, it becomes a wall. Understanding history as a fabulous and frightening endless night, I pledge small acts of faith.
I return to the dock to thank Neptune, a god I trust and fear, a real god, I think, indulging in comparisons. Inspired by the call to prayer from a minaret, I begin, O my harbormaster, on one knee sore from last night’s seasickness, but the address degenerates into a prattle of base interrogation (why me?); unsophisticated palaver (can it get any hotter here?); and solipsistic malaprops (I am your tired, your poor, your huddled mass yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore..). A Muslim woman, a real woman, I say aloud, arrives loaded with baskets, her haik wildly flapping, her hadjar askew. She knows full well, from her disapproving glance, that foreign women, as such, are not called to prayer, as such. She prepares a meal while watching a child, completely covered in the sweltering heat, frozen in place. The Mediterranean Sea laps dispassionately a stone’s throw away.
This veiled woman is arrayed in hot colors, is a hot coal, an event stared at but seldom revealed. She burns night after night. Is a glimpse of the past indecent to fathom as a woman in djellaba and veil who materializes behind thorny hedges? I learn that a Muslim’s private life is considered ‘awra, an intimate part of the body to be concealed. To explain her away is to behead her. Here she appears again, beneath a mulberry tree, among chickens, setting out a pot of water and an embroidered towel so her guests can wash before they eat dates in a perfume of…
I shall tell you tomorrow night, if the King spares me.
Text in this post: © Jane Miller
Published with the permission of Jane Miller