The cairns in Sabine Miller’s new e-chapbook Cairns are at once memorial monuments and trail markers. They are monuments dedicated to those who have had some profound impact in shaping her perception of the world she courses through. The first section is dedicated soley to the late James Nicely, an impressionable family artist friend, whereas each poem in the second is dedicated to others, from family and ex-boyfriends to musicians and poets. What all of these individuals have imparted she shares, leaving cairns of prose poems and what she calls “grid paintings” behind for the rest of us making our way. If each prose poem is a cairn, its parade of phrases are its stacked stones; and in like spirit, so is each globular shape in a grid painting.
Integral to Cairns are the "grid" paintings that grace the front and back covers as well as several pages of the text. The grids of more or less discreet circular forms could very well be impressionist renderings of rocks laid out on a tray in a natural history museum. They could also be the points of a pointilist painting of the sort that dedicatee James Nicely painted, only magnified. Miller invites both associations when combining both pointilist imagery and rock in the phrase, “the quarry was a scaled-up pointillist landscape,” and in “the dots are small cairns of color."
References to the impressionist pointilist Seurat and/or pointillism bespeckle the prose poems and their landscapes, especially in section I. For instance: "the quarry was a scaled-up pointillist landscape . . . the dots are small cairns of color." If the grid-images appear as if carefully placed stones, this is probably no accident.
The pointilist references appear as early as the introduction:
For the Pointillists, it is the juxtaposition of pure color, not intermixing, that intensifies effect— the particulars vibrating like photon-clocks to make a luminous whole.
When asked how the grid images were painted, Miller wrote
the grid layout comes from running a big soppy paintbrush over a plastic-covered metal grid I found, never figured out what it was originally intended for (barbeque? grid painting?).
Nonetheless, with a cursory glance at the grid images, it becomes clear that not all of the globular shapes are entirely separate from each other as the edges of quite a few either touch or seep into the next. The grid template is at best an approximate buffer as are the colons and semicolons in each prose piece of Cairns. The colons and semicolons, as if functioning as sieves, allow for some elements of the phrases they contain to bleed into subsequent phrases. The bleeding of one glob into another is especially evident in the opening phrases of Rose Cut in Rock: “The roses didn’t stop; the roses continued into the sky.” It is thus no surprise when just a few phrases following this, the boundaries are blurred: “I couldn’t tell if the fragrance was coming from my mind or the roses”. In another prose poem, “A fugue”, words continue on . . . or reappear as themselves or as slant rhymes (cf. the repetition of “sea”, “memory”, or “notes”, and the echoing of sounds as in “blooms”, “moves”, “roots”, and “proof”). Moreover, the waves lap and overlap as phrasings in a fugue.
The cumalitive effect of moving through Miller's work is mesmerizing. This is in part due to how the cairns direct one along the topographical contours of both this world and that of the spirit. The reader is invited to feel her way through and at the steady pace of Miller’s phrasings.