On David Miller’s Prose

Giles Goodland












In discussing David Miller’s work, it is hard to draw a line between poetry and prose, or indeed any of the usual textual boundaries. That which is presented as a poem is often proselike; and that which comes wrapped as prose often feels strongly like a poem. These blurs and crossed lines are deliberate, and often enjoyable. Miller crosses boundaries to explore and sometimes implode what these genres are. One of his major prose works, ‘Tesserae’, appears at the end of a book of prose poems: The Waters of Marah. Visually, only its length, at 35 pages, separates it from the other pieces in the volume. The preceding prose-poems have many paragraphs that are not afraid at all to sound like narrative prose, such as


During a holiday abroad, my friend sent me a postcard about seeing a film at an open-air cinema, to the accompaniment of jets landing at the nearby airport, and with the underwater photography mostly washed out by poor projection and too much extraneous light. (‘Stromata’, p. 63, author’s italics).



In a previous article (‘Parataxis and Constellations’, Poetry Salzburg Review, Autumn 2005 p. 168), I have argued that this style is characteristic of Miller. His unit of composition is the prose paragraph, and in this sense all of his writing is allied more firmly with experimental writing as it has unfolded in prose, rather than the different course it has taken in poetry. His prose poems are a mixture of formally novelistic prose and more conventionally prose-poetic elements, broken into paragraph-units in a manner that invites a paratactic reading.


Thus the reader encountering ‘Tesserae’ is likely to begin this piece thinking of it as a prose-poem, as with the previous items in The Waters of Marah. And they would not be badly wrong; only by each additional page does it become clear that ‘Tesserae’ is distinguished by having a plot, characters, the usual assemblages of prose narrative. The piece is the ‘sieve of memories’ of one character, Charles, during a single night, shortly after the apparent suicide of a close friend, Stephen. The memories go back to the start of their friendship and explore the network of friends around them, but provide no answer to the puzzle of his death: the piece is not interested in that kind of truth. The form may be that of the novella, but the aesthetics are those of poetry: impressions, connections, images. Each paragraph and section adds to a picture of a character and a milieu, and forms a meditative constellation of the relations between art, love, friendship, alienation and death, but makes only the briefest of gestures towards plot, exposition, or resolution. Tesserae are the individual coloured tiles that make up the picture in a mosaic. A mosaic, unlike a portrait, is usually viewed by standing over it. Miller lays the pieces out in abstract order and invites the reader to construct a portrait of something that has been smashed, but is not beyond repair.


The Dorothy and Benno Stories, by title, are less ambiguously made of prose, but begin with this paragraph:


The discrete: contiguity re-forms the splintered elements, wind-ruffled water’s surface, roads spreading out before us in autumnal colours. Something hovers unseen over us and tempts us to brooding presentiments.


This could be prose-poetry or denkenbild or journal-extract. It alerts the reader
to be watchful and estranges us from the expectations of prose. This is followed
by Miller’s characteristic single bold dot, like a cinematic slow-fade, which he uses to divide sections, and then the next paragraph, which belongs to the world of genre-fiction:


Coming up the road from where she’d left her car, Dorothy was troubled—even before entering the old house.


At the house Dorothy encounters a corpse, and a departing murderer. This is the start of a sequence of stories in which she teams up with Benno to form a kind of Holmes-Watson partnership, attempting to solve various murders and disappearances in a world of artists, writers, and intellectuals. But the relationship of these stories to genre detective fiction is something like that between Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X and what Francis Bacon made of it; or between the musical song ‘These are a Few of my Favourite Things’ and what Coltrane did to it. It is a relationship that goes beyond simple parody, as if to inquire deeply into the original artefact and retrieve or see for the first time what is truly remarkable or surprising in the original: something we would never have seen before. After reading The Dorothy and Benno Stories we realise that all detective fiction revolves around the theme of absence, irreplaceability, what is missing. But in Miller’s stories the act of searching becomes irrelevant, the merest hook on which to hang a narrative of increasingly bizarre characters colliding and talking over each other, like a jazz solo taking off on the sketchiest tune and building from it a remarkable set of variations.


A few pages after Dorothy’s encounter with the corpse, the two protagonists are forced to take a bus to conduct their first investigative interview, her car having broken down. The bus stop is opposite a large public square, where a billboard-sized screen is projecting a children’s programme about Marcel Duchamp, showing among other things ‘the dust accumulating on the glass surface of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.’ Dorothy and Benno spend two paragraphs discussing Duchamp, their quest forgotten. Somewhere—it is not quite clear where—we have departed from the accepted reality of crime fiction, and are in a world where things make a lot more sense. In a later story, they encounter a French novelist called Gorin who is old enough to have known a suspiciously large number of early Twentieth-Century modernists. At one point, he comes into a room whistling a tune. Benno asks him what the tune is, and Gorin replies that it is the melody of the only blues written by Kafka. There follows the funniest discussion of Kafka I have read in fiction (or any medium), which culminates in a rendition:


You keep moving, but the Law’ll be coming around.

Keep moving, yes, that Law’ll be coming around,

You’ve done nothing, but the Law’ll throw you down. (p.33).


This is funny, but it also burns into the reader a connection that we could never have seen in, say, literary criticism, or even by reading Kafka: that Kafka was a blues-writer. Only in prose.


The Dorothy and Benno stories are full of mad, unsettling and funny connections like this. As a sequence, they should have their own TV series. They fit more into their 64 undersized pages than any other crime writer, who usually progresses from book to book on the grounds of predictable franchises, familiar characters, using the traditional metres of genre narrative. I would contend that, in this sense, all of Miller’s prose is poetry: a poetry that can absorb other discourses and assimilate them to its own poetic ends.