A Diorama of Memories: Claire Millikin’s Ransom Street

Ransom Street / Claire Millikin / 2Leaf Press, $17

Claire Millikin’s Ransom Street opens with “Atlantic,” which both warns the reader to be wary of the poetry that follows, and channels these poems as a means to construct memory-spaces: “I will go out / in my boat of language / because voice is not only a wound / but also a craft.” Indeed, “Atlantic,”—a prize winner, and one of the collection’s best pieces—helps create the rhythm of Millikin’s poems. As she captures the waves “edging back and forth,” so too does the narrative edge back and forth into the haunts of the poetic voice.

Ransom Street is, as its title suggests, concerned with the process of taking and holding for ransom. Each poem capitalizes on the experience of delayed payment; trauma or suffering occurring at one moment must be reimbursed or reckoned with sometime later. A child’s youth is taken as ransom—her experiences become part of the gritty economy that encompasses farmlands, depressed cityscapes, and decaying houses. The taking and payment of ransom is graphed into this geography, with Millikin’s poems becoming meditations on the vestigial traces of ransom that cannot be reconciled, trapped in the places of these experiences.

Spectres linger in the poems of Ransom Street—these spectres may be the amorphous forms of men playing chess in “Table Laid for an Evening Meal,” the ubiquitous forces of the economy and the weather—surrounding and chafing the figures of these poems—or the more realized glimpses of the poetic voice in the past. These spectres become emblems, not of the current but of memory, housed in the architecture of the collection. “Space is curved / in a house without sleep,” notes the poem “Anamorphosis,” the “curved” nature of space becoming a motif—and source of inspiration—for the rest of the poem. Yet the curvature of space is pertinent to the creation—the “craft”—of the collection as a whole. The titular “Ransom Street,” the “Hallways,” and the “Strip Mall” continually draw attention to the construction of space. The “craft” of poetry becomes a diorama, through which the reader explores the spaces, the buildings, the rooms, and the places in between, which Millikin lays out and builds with her collection.

The construction of physical space offers narrative space for self-reflection. Many of the poems have a confessional air. I say “confessional” not as a (denigrating) term to express the poems’ similarities to the works of Plath or Berryman—they aren’t very similar; rather, as the poems construct space and explore architecture, so too does the “confessional” represent an eponymous religious space. The poems become a space of narrative telling and retelling as a purifying process: “space is curved,” to house a confessing subject. As the speaker reminds, in “Anamorphosis,” “I’m still her girl,” the creation of the house—the space, the confessional—allowing the speaker to explore the subjectivity of herself as a child, a “girl.” The confessions becoming the confessions of memory.   

Where architecture and the confessional box create a space for the speaker to speak, physical objects mark a movement into the past. The title object in “Coat History,” for example, recalls the experience of harsh winters, generational endowments, and the memory of the fabric itself. As each object triggers memories, new spaces—or lack thereof—unfold. Often, as the coat creates the image of “a half-starved girl,” it is the latter. The memories explored in Ransom Street are traumatic—the “half-starved girl,” points to the poverty and homelessness remembered by this speaker, and the speakers of Millikin’s other poems. Thus, the construction of the house in the present—the confessional space for the speaker’s memories—becomes essential in relief of the stark past. Each object, from boxes to frozen food, is immensely important, no matter how innocuous, as a consequence of scarcity.   

Of course, the confessional as a religious space is explicitly explored throughout the poems as well. The mundane objects that trigger memory are juxtaposed with the sacred, or, as one poem’s title suggests, the “Holy, Unholy.” Saints, reflections on coming to religion, and the celebration of Christmas become subjects throughout the collection. The most interesting pieces on religion—and confession—however, are a series of poems on “Atonement.” The sustained look at atoning for one’s past—traveling into the memories of the poetic voice—through the voice of a “half-starved girl,” comes to highlight the immense pressure of wanting to find sacredness in the midst of the profane and hardship. In “Atonement: Priest,” which stands out among this series of poems, Millikin draws on the experience of religion through multiple subjects. The poem opens, “I touch the bread that becomes flesh,” pointing to an experience of religion belonging to a the speaker-as-a-child—the meaning of the bread becoming the body of Christ becomes a literal, visceral transfiguration felt in the “touch” of the speaker. Yet, much like the coat before it, the “black hat,” the speaker wears triggers further memory. This memory becomes inherited, not experienced by the speaker herself:

[…] wearing even the black hat
of rain and time, as did the old priest
on Lesvos, walking in an alley with grieving women, the island shining
where my mother is still a girl, pure of the knowledge of men.

The hat—the object—allows the speaker to slip into the memory of the old priest, and explore a temporal space of unified gender. The memory is of “the place before [the speaker’s] birth,” as her own mother is still a child, again recalling the speaker’s interest in herself as a child. The innocence of the mother—before she meets the father—is a pre-lapsarian innocence. On Lesvos—an allusion to the inheritance of verse from Sappho—the mother is “pure of the knowledge of men.”

The language within these poems can at times be obvious or reaching. In “Orphan Afternoon,” Millikan’s notes that she and “two other kids” where “[j]ust like school children—released / for an afternoon from juvenile / corrections into the eternal world.” Here, the image is almost clear—the freedom of the speaker is compared to the freedom of the children in a juvenile corrections facility, but by invoking the “eternal world,” the image falters. No longer are the speaker and the other children tasting freedom, but they are embarking on something else—a choice that seems both too simple, and inaccessible to the reader. Yet, as the poems offer space to explore the psychologies of these speakers—and with it, a space to explore history, class, and gender—the challenges of the language become part of the poetry’s architecture.

Towards the end of the collection is “Cardboard Houses,” a poem that centers the interest in the dioramic construction of space. The speaker notes that she “got a cardboard house, for Christmas / age eight. A photograph / left in a shoebox proves it,” and goes on to describe the cardboard house’s ornamentations, “painted and squared / to mimic Georgian architecture.” The aesthetic construction of the cardboard house comes to mimic the construction of space within the poems. Where the house is painted and decorated to look like a pleasant Georgian house, it is still obviously cardboard, much like the language—and indeed the faultiness of language—is an approximation of memory. Yet, this cardboard house has bite. The cardboard house serves as a vessel for painful recollection: “and women like me, often enough, / end up in cardboard houses, sleeping rough.” Where the couplet here again draws attention to the conspicuous language, the cardboard itself—the material of assembling the house and the dioramas—is central to the poem’s edge.

A diorama, like the cardboard house, is typically made of materials other than what is meant to be represented. An interior of a house, for example, may be made into a shoebox or a cigar box. Furniture can be made from plastic, wire, or paper cut-outs. It is the illusion of the diorama that creates the sense of a miniature world—real people, real furniture, real clothing. While the language, at times, is banal, where the dioramic poems in Ransom Street succeed is in the creation and showcasing of this illusion, pulling the reader into the speaker’s memories and showing how the physical space is constructed. The illusion is always juxtaposed with the reality. A beautiful Georgian house is placed next to a cardboard box, a half-starved young girl having crawled inside:

[…] between foyer and former dining parlor.
The cardboard house shaped a hollow  
high and wide enough for a child
of forty pounds and forty-eight inches.

Sam Wilcox is a senior in Columbia College majoring in English. He is the current Managing Editor of The Columbia Review.