Orpheus & Echo, Robert Miltner, Etruscan Press, 2020
Reviewed by Andrew Rihn
The prose poem is a funny thing. Slippery form, difficult to pin down. Maybe not helpful to call it a form at all; Russell Edson's prose poem is not Nin Andrews' prose poem is not Campbell McGrath's prose poem. A good collection of prose poetry challenges you to travel without a map. Robert Miltner's latest collection, Orpheus & Echo, is just such a book, written with one eye to the page and the other eye toward the horizon, "where waves erase & rewrite our names on beach sands."
As the title suggests, Orpheus & Echo takes up those ancient stories but repurposes them to include the language of electric guitars and mix tapes. From this blended narrative, Miltner wields a fearless prosody and stunning, gilt-edged language that makes Orpheus & Echo some of the most satisfyingly poetic prose since Baudelaire vented his Parisian spleen.
The most noticeable example of that prosody is the use of the caesura. There are long caesuras and short: suggestions of period and comma, but never confirmations. Silent chasms that interrupt the lines of text. They suggest pauses, breath, and an attention to the musicality of cadence and rhythm. These are interpretive silences, à la jazz, freestyle or improvised, always to be explored and perhaps never repeated in their phrasing.
Notice the justification to both the left and right margins, a clean visual fact that, like the caesura, calls into play the line break, that taboo of the prose poet. Some lines end; other lines wrap around. Interpretation again. There is no end punctuation. If this is prose, are these sentences? If this is poetry, how do we define line? Miltner’s style and structure express the paradoxes that make prose poetry an exciting, mongrel form, where choice is more deliberative than definitive.
Then there is the author's striking use of the ampersand. Phrases are connected & connected & connected. Linguistic archipelagos dotting out their distance across the page. An example from "coincidence of distance":
Craft is the name we give the surface features of good writing, but good craft plunges us below the surface, reveals a depth of emotion. Craft begets effect, develops it, provokes it. In this case, languid phrases give way to staccato syllables, mirroring the falling water droplets.
That liquid effect is mirrored later in the book, in "Narcissus: the day I drowned":
Here the body is catalogued, but also, through the ampersands, it becomes a body in motion, a reversal of Eurydice in the raindrops. Now the body is sinking, submerging, disappearing. Movement on the page that plays in the mind, like a short film. The ampersands guide us in how to edit the footage, they create the scene, enact the drama.
These are simple tools: the caesura to split the words and the ampersand to connect them. The craft is subtle but compelling, which is when craft is at its best: the artist's nearly invisible hand. Throughout Orpheus & Echo, prosody's simple tools are put to meaningful work, emphatic and urgent. By not shying away from the poetic line with/in his prose, by embracing (or challenging) the form's inherent paradox, Miltner succeeds in composing prose poetry with the "textures of letters clamoring to be poems."
A note about the book's unusual release: Orpheus & Echo was released in Triptych, a large edition from Etruscan Press best described as containing three books between two covers. Alongside Orpheus & Echo are The Three-Legged World by Peter Grandbois and In Time by James McCorkle. This format makes Orpheus & Echo a beautiful book wrapped inside a beautiful book, a fitting presentation that, like the prose poem, resists the categorization of form.