Varied States of Being: A Review of John James’s The Milk Hours by Adam Yeich

Another beautifully rendered book of poetry comes from the publishers at Milkweed Editions, the full-length debut from John James. The poet’s chapbook, Chthonic, won the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Award. His poems have additionally been published in the Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Best American Poetry 2017, and elsewhere. Besides writing poetry, James is a digital collagist, and his visual art is forthcoming in Androit Journal, Quarterly West, and LIT. The Milk Hours is the second winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and has been acclaimed as a “memorable” and “startlingly mature, exhilarating debut.” James has been hailed as “a poet of our precarious moment,” and “a poet of staggering lyricism,” with Carolyn Forché calling the book “his gift to us.” James currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley. Within these poems, both visually and aesthetically pleasing to read and to see on the page, James explores the nature of being; he examines loss—personal, public, and historic. So much happens in such a small span of time and space within these pages.

            The opening, titular poem establishes the mood and theme of the book, wherein James shows his father’s interment in the cemetery, the same cemetery the windows of the family home once overlooked. The poem weaves together wandering and searching in a time of loss, juxtaposing the feeding of his infant daughter—the milk hours—with the loss of his father, addressing the loss as memory fades of loved ones who have passed, and closing with the resounding image where “Snowmelt smoothes the stone cuts of his name.” Later in the book, James returns to this idea of fading and forgetting in “April, Andromeda.” The poem, after connecting the speaker to the natural world and the larger galaxy, points out the rapidity and tendency of human forgetfulness. The narrator asks, “How in the right are children / to forget name and date and place,” presumably in reference to the father’s face growing “vague and then vaguer” from the opening poem.

            In “Chthonic,” the poet explores the loss of his father again, this time in the context of the sound of his voice. The speaker says he lost his father’s mouth years ago and asks why the father can’t hear. The father tells the speaker that he is underground, a callback to the father’s place in the cemetery from “The Milk Hours.” The reference also seems to refer readers back to “Le Moribond” in which the narrator explores catacombs and reflects on the death there, the bones and skulls and repetition of the idea that death “sleeps below ground.” In this poem, readers also get the idea of trying to maintain the things—sounds, images—lost over time via human forgetfulness with the simple statement that “A picture is a fine memento.”

            While referring back to and reinforcing the narrator’s sense of loss, “Le Moribond” carries the larger historical theme of loss as well, with concern to the dead interred beneath the square of Montparnasse. The historic losses are first brought to the reader in the second poem immediately following “The Milk Hours,” and then, the theme carries on, weaving in and out of poems along a similar flow to the narrator’s own personal loss that ebbs between the poems from one page to the next. Readers are exposed to loss from volcanic eruptions, from the mass death of wartime, and then, a variety of other past losses that build James’s concept of being or existing within a state of losing.

            In the middle of the book, James includes a poem, “End,” that address both life and death, tying in the concept of loss as well as his juxtaposition of the loss of his father with the birth and raising of his daughter. The poem encompasses both the development of life and the progression toward death, from the fossil fuels moving the car and putting gases into the air to the feeding of birds and the decay of fallen leaves. This decay and the end of life is mirrored in the shells of beetles in dung and in the decay of the narrator’s cells—dying, as his daughter’s cells divide—life. Throughout the poem, woven into the metaphors of living and dying, the seasons progress, from summer to fall to winter, a common metaphor of the progression of life, and when the narrator explains the development of his daughter’s cells and the decaying of his own, he reveals a line that seems to sum up the central theme of being within the varied states of loss, when he explains, “What’s fixed / is a constant going, the rapid ebb of states / of being rearranging themselves /  in the skin.” At the end, the narrator leaves readers with the image of swallows moving toward “us” always, before flying up into the sky and then away, a powerful metaphor implying the fleeting nature of life and how quickly loss comes upon us in the form of death and the process of the end of a life.

            The book is divided into five parts, like the acts of a play, reflecting the beginning, middle, and end of a life, and this is mirrored in the structure of the parts themselves. The first part consists of just one poem, “The Milk Hours,” and the fifth part also consists of just one poem, “Forget the Song,” while the middle three parts consist of more poems where the central themes of being and loss are explored in the weaving between the pieces. The fact that the first and last parts consist of one poem each could be seen as a metaphor for the brevity of birth and death, while the bulk of living occurs between those two points. The breaks between the middle three parts don’t seem to serve a larger purpose to the overall nature of the book, while the way the collection is bookended with those two singular poems does act as a sort of container for the themes explored within them. The final poem again utilizes the juxtaposition of the growing of the daughter and the loss of the father. Though the father is not directly referenced, the narrator carries the metaphor of being buried, of existing beneath the ground. The poem focuses more largely on the growth and development of the daughter, the fear of the danger around her (implying a fear of losing her), and the development in nature, implying an almost therapeutic acceptance of loss and a shifting focus to the growth and development of life.

            The Milk Hours, published in June 2019, is cover-priced at $22 US and can be purchased or ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and most other bookstores and retailers. The beauty of this structured exploration of loss and existence, of life and death, makes the collection a must-read. James’s work fulfills Milkweed Editions’ mission to “identify, nurture, and publish transformative literature,” as James makes masterful use of the English language and of metaphor to explore concepts every one of his readers has dealt with and will continue to deal with as we all wonder, “Do we make our end or does it make us?”

To read James's poems in a previous issue of Miracle Monocle, click here.

ADAM YEICH is assistant editor of Miracle Monocle.