Poem of the week: Tiny Pieces by Billy Mills

Broken glass

Broken glass.

This week’s poem is by Billy Mills, and comes from Lares/Manes: Collected Poems, published by Shearsman in 2009. While the title of the collection suggests concerns with hearth and home this is only part of the story: the vast and flowing home of the poems belongs to geological time. These poems are not confined to questioning language. They combine the musicality and intensity of poetry with the precision of scientific method, and the collection has the intellectual capaciousness of the bigger literary forms: it contains data of all kinds, found poetry, philosophical enquiry, and a variety of landscapes and cityscapes, including Ireland. While Mills is associated with a group of experimental Irish poets claiming independence from the traditional emphasis on identity politics, his poetry is fully alive to location. The fact that it doesn’t sing rhetorically about Ireland doesn’t mean that Ireland is excluded from the “important places” it considers.

 A poem in sections, “Tiny Pieces” forms part of a larger work, “What is a Mountain?” There is a trio of epigraphs: a brief report on the three car-bombs detonated in the centre of Dublin with the likely connivance of British Army intelligence, a quotation from Oscar Wilde (“All art is entirely useless”) and a verse by Godfraidh Fionn O Daláigh: “If they ask questions/ skilful poets will know; / bright this art you hear of: / questions the door to knowing.”

 The imagery of mountain-formation is introduced in a further, untitled prelude. “What is a mountain?” asks the fifth line. “Stone flows; folds. A name. It rises.” In the miniature-scale delicacy of the “Tiny Pieces” which follow, we find the inverse of the mountain and its associated cataclysm. What gradually emerges (each tiny piece has its own page in the collection) is tenderly consoling – a love poem more intimate and more spacious than such poems usually are.

 The first section considers both fragmentation (“scattered/ this glass”) and reintegration. “Folds” is a key word which will later give rise to three poems described as folds (“The First Fold,” etc). Fold mountains are formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, and the compressed material both rises and descends. “Folds” in the earth’s crust “determine” the shape of a mountain. “Folds” as sheltering-places also form our allegiances, and thus our blind-spots and our wars. Paper and poems are folded into shapes: lovers enfold one another. As the second poem suggests, tact and precision might inform and transform relations. With “Follow the lines” we move from particulate and scattered to particular and enclosing.

 The imagistic third section seems to excavate memory. Vividly present, the shining leaves (more tiny pieces) somehow lead back as well as up to the “boxroom/ window”. “Window” resurrects the scattered glass. The images suggest to me a child’s room, looking down on a small garden fronted with privet: safe containment, but with a view outwards. The symmetrical syllable-count 1/3/3/1/2/2 gives this poem the balance of a miniature sonnet.

The next segment stays with the natural world: it’s the most haiku-like of the pieces, and the depth of the stanza break seems to stand for the “cutting word” – often not a word, but a punctuation mark heightening the significance of a juxtaposition. Here, the thrushes emerge from the “various greens” and the printless space with the magical suddenness of actual birds seen suddenly close up, and with all the potential offered by “a pair”.

 Perhaps the thrushes help attune the reader to the sense of new young life, which is implicit in the next piece. The rift between the world and the word, the “imperfect charting,” after all begins with our earliest speech. Aligning word and world as accurately as possible is our first and life-long human concern.

 Exactness of language can at least find out the question and glimpse “the door to knowing”. In the sixth poem it finds song. This four-word invitation is a perfect musical phrase: “close/ now// slowly/ come.” Its unexpected, Latinate syntax, culminating in the verb, takes us from word to word, pause to pause. Having once read the sentence in this initially curious structure, it becomes impossible to imagine it otherwise.

 The lines in “Tiny Pieces” are themselves tiny. I counted 30 single-word lines out of 38, half of which are monosyllables: the longest line is “a pair of thrushes”. But their very shortness, emphasised by their separate pagination, insists on attentive reading. The tempo, in music, would be adagio. Words assert their primary meanings, but the silence around them allows us to hear other tones and resonance. So in the next poem, the simple verbs (perhaps imperatives) give the reader memory-room. We’re guided, told that the verbs represent “simple pleasures”, but the exact associations of “touch”, “call” and “remember” are gifts for private unwrapping.

 By the end of the poem, the shimmer of scattered glass is distant. The last segment might complete the sentence of the previous one: “here/where// all/is// tiny/ pieces” could denote the intimate space of a body or a room, the words of the poem itself, or the location of particles created by destruction. It could denote all these things simultaneously. And still the poem has a lightness and brightness with its images of leaves and building birds, its careful looking and touching. This sense of abundance and flourishing will continue throughout “What is a Mountain?”

 Singling one poem out of a collection inevitably distorts the poem to some degree. This is particularly true of “Tiny Pieces”. “What is a Mountain?” is conceived almost as one poem, its voices interrelated and recurring, as in a fugue. In fact, the whole of Lares/Manes is a voluminous web of connected images and themes.

 Tiny Pieces

this glass





the lines



after rain




various greens

a pair of thrushes


the world

the word













Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/07/poem-of-the-week-billy-mills