Through Impulse and Intuition

oriflamme. by Sandra Miller. Ahsahta Press, 2005. $16.
Reviewed by Catherine Daly.

Sandra Miller's first book, oriflamme., is organized by her references to symbols in the poems. An oriflamme was the alternative to the fleur de lis on Medieval French battlefields, and it makes an early appearance in Le Chanson de Roland. The ori in oriflamme is a gilt (gold) lance; the flamme is a banner (of any color), but also means flame. The flame-red silk banner stitched with flames that the oriflamme later became compounds this association. The oriflamme is, thus, a symbol of war which leads fighters on to the field of battle. The application to Sandra Miller's poems is obvious: the page is the field, and the "inflammatory" or inspirational symbol or standard leads the reader into it.

Miller's poems are clearly in the Romantic/Symbolist/Surrealist vein; they proceed through impulse and intuition rather than stricter sorts of association. In one poem in the beginning of the collection, Miller conducts a dance of oppositions, or oscillations, between the sun ("of which I am the sun," "bluest sun," "sunleash," "sunlash," "'sunlight has weight,'" etc.) and an abyss which is "a black disk" or a black hole or a watery abyss. If the sun, small star, or heart is also an oriflamme of sorts, its opposite, here, the black hole or collapsed star, is the ultimate subject, the human. The symbolic references Miller makes organize the collection. Faces, a white field, wall, paper or moon, and the various sorts of stars interrelate through Deleuze and Felix Guattari on the topic of faciality:

Significance is never without a white wall upon which it inscribes
its signs and redundancies. Subjectification is never without a black
hole in which it lodges its consciousness, passion, and redundancies.

                    "Year Zero: Faciality," A Thousand Plateaus

The quotes in the book are mostly "quoted through" literary critics.  For example, the epigraph of "We are heavy to bend." is called a "North Russian incantation" in the portion of Roman Jakobsen's essay, "Linguistics and Poetics" on the magic qualities of language referring to a symbolic or abstract third "person."  

                 Send grief beyond the blue Sea

                to the Sea bottom,

                like a grey stone,

                never to rise from the Sea bottom

This type of reference to the symbolic or abstract is the type the word oriflamme makes.  When Miller quotes more from the Jakobson essay at the center of the poem "'Everywhere it is face,'" she returns to the ideas of signification and subjectification on white wall, field, or page. The other quote illustrating magical language in the Jakobson essay also appears in the same poem:

                'May this sty dry, tfu, tfu'

Thus, when Miller writes, "Sea bottom / spoken here," "fugue spoken here," and "tfu tfu / spoken here," she alters the text usually displayed on the signs that appear in the windows of shops with multilingual clerks (e.g., "English Spoken Here") to write about how her poems are incantatory rather than more typically "poetic," how their meanings are about the marriage of form and, respectively, grief and absurdity. Miller continues these themes with the poem opening with a quote from Ronald Omnes, who wrote books explaining quantum mechanics, defining a black hole (without mentioning that "This expression," the phrase opening the quote, refers to "black hole").  This poem continues with a Jakobsonian consideration of a spell as male speech.

Poems later in the collection return to the themes of oscillation between sun and collapsed star developed in the opening sequence. In "My symphalograph must be a pointed cyanosis." where cyanosis is having blue skin, a visible symptom like the coinage "symphalograph," the major quote is from William Gass' "On Being Blue."  Gass' full line, which includes a sun / face/ oriflamme in the original that Miller has chosen not to include, is:

...if among a melange of meanings, there is one with a more
immediate appeal ... it will assume a center like a sun...

The poem later in the collection, "stretti, blunt rustic." recalls the themes developed in the opening sequence, as a stretti is, by definition, a fugue-like dialogue between subject and answer where the subject and answer converge; appropriately, alternating stanzas of this poem are left and right justified.

In another example of this type of organization or thematic flow between poems, the aubade "sordid intimacy of eiderdown:  traversed by waves," is preceded by the poem, "osculation for easter flower." (i.e., kiss for lily) where the quotes define the "sordid" of the next poems' title and associate both poems with the oscillation or wave motion between opposites.

It should be no surprise that many of the apparent subjects of these poems are the same as the subjects the quoted literary critics use to elucidate their theories, but the poems in oriflamme. go far beyond mere illustrations or riffs to embody new mysteries, weave new spells.