Josephine Miles: “Cage”
What stuck me about “Cage” when I first saw it among the previously uncollected work in Josephine Miles’ Collected Poems 1930-83 was its lyricism. Although Miles wrote lyric poetry all her life, she is generally recognized as a poet more engaged with speech and ideas than with song. Her interest in the American vernacular, from people yelling at each other in traffic to bureaucratic jargon, informs her most well-known pieces. These include thoughtful observations on academic life in Berkeley, where she was a professor from the 1940s through the 1970s (no poet is better on teaching and learning); explorations of philosophical paradoxes; quirky takes on neighborhood life; and clear-eyed portraits of a childhood marked by the arthritis that would leave her disabled—all with her distinctive qualities of concision, wry humor, and an ear for the way people talk. But “Cage” evinces a strand in her work that has largely been overlooked, something more song-like and emotional.
What makes a good lyric? The tradition, of course, is immense, and the poem must show awareness of it but not seem burdened by it. It must be pared down, without the scaffolding of narrative, description or character development that can support other poems. A good lyric covers its tracks. Its movement must appear natural, even effortless. It must convince through feeling more than argument. And, of course, it must sing.
Miles meets these challenges with subtlety and grace. The surface of “Cage” is simple—a tree, a street, a room—its progression from tension to openness seemingly inevitable. The poem is built on contrasts—inside/outside, caged/open, light/dark, hot/cool—but these alone don’t account for its emotional effects. What makes the fight in the first stanza so disturbing, and what gives that sense of relief with the invitation to come outside in the second? Sentence use, for one thing. The fight scene is one long sentence suspended over eight lines, the invitation five short lines over seven. As the opening sentence builds, its focus shifts from the intricate beauty of the Japanese cherry inward to an increasingly limited scene: one square of light, two figures in it, bordered by two heavy fixtures. Closing the sentence on the title word “cage” seals the stanza in compacted tension, as if the poem were coiled around itself, unable to move. When the poet speaks to the couple in the second stanza, in contrast, her sentences are no longer constricted but balanced and open, with room for parallel constructions: “come out” and “walk,” “you” and “me.” Two two-line sentences are followed by three one-liners, ending the poem with a repetition not of the dilemma but of the invitation to escape it: “Come out into the night.” Although the second stanza is one line shorter than the first, its five sentences make it feel longer and looser, as if the night offered endless possibilities.
One part of this invitation—a lure, if you will—is sensory. When the falling cherry petals come back in the second stanza, they no longer function just as visual images but take on the coolness of moonlight and a hushed, “surrounding” sound that encompasses both mystery and security. And then there’s music. Miles flirts here with traditional patterns of rhyme and meter to find her own tune. The six full rhymes on “light,” for example, set up a framework that serves to highlight the more subtle slant rhymes: “cherry/me,” “rain/sun,” and my favorite, “moon/surround.” There is a pleasure in recurrence and room for surprise, too. On a more dramatic level, the contrast between the harsh concluding t’s that reach their crescendo in the fight scene—“Cuts,” “its,” “light,” “it,” “fight,” “hot,” and “irate” in three short lines—and the more open ooh and ow sounds in the dreamiest part of the invitation—“you,” “flowers,” “cool,” “moon,” “how,” “surround”—heightens the couple’s tension and the promise of relief. Miles’s music draws us into the evening.
It could be argued that all poems are finally about their makers, yet “Cage,” for all its craft, does not focus on the poet’s sensitivity. The direction it points is outward: “It is for you, not me.” “Cage” shows a lyric side not commonly associated with Josephine Miles, but the generosity of spirit behind it is at the heart of her enterprise.
Don Bogen on Josephine Miles’ “Cage” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.
A writer, critic, and translator, Don Bogen earned his PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of the poetry collections After the Splendid Display (1986), The Known World (1997), Luster (2003), An Algebra (2009), and Immediate Song (2019). Bogen’s poetry engages the private, public,...