Lumina by Heather Ross Miller
Louisiana Literature Press (May 2011)
Reviewed by Catherine Staples
Like the monologues of graveyard inhabitants in the Spoon River Anthology, Heather Ross Miller’s lyric narratives weave the story of another small town, this one dominated not by the graveyard but by the hellish heat and crucibles of aluminum-smelting. Lumina is full of fierce living and shot through with loss. The book’s title is one letter short of a mineral crucial to the making of aluminum, “alumina.” Miller may also be invoking the Latin for “lumina,” “light, an opening,” initially it seems, somewhat ironically. For although the industry provided a livelihood for local rural blacks, whites, and immigrants—all those “who dared the smelter’s flare, and / drove out its ingots, those perfections,” it did so at “a terrible cost…dirty, hot and dangerous.”
The first of the town’s voices is that of Nell Leopard whose name and story knell like a bell, fateful and dire. “My mother picked it, said, Nell./ This easy augury christened me.” “Augury” is entirely the right word, presaging a tragic arc. Her mother’s warning, “pretty little girl, you’ll get men into/ trouble,” is all too apt. It’s all a good fit with Lumina’s haunting cover of a pensive child photographed in a sepia-tone, yet holding a bright red apple.
Appropriately enough, it’s Nell who remembers back to a time before engineers made a “furnace” of their falling water, a time before men’s “bare faces” were “all night hot, all night dirt/ all night danger.” This anaphora perfectly captures the grim existence of the smelters and is in marked contrast to Nell’s childhood memories of the undammed river. “I heard the Falls batter/ rock, scatter white lather/ light as a veil, then gather water/ to run three miles…” Miller builds a rich wave of sound with her characteristic blends of end and interior rhyme. Her free and natural progression jars with the ominous description Bill Leopard, Nell’s cuckolded husband, gives us of the river’s cold waters penned in behind the dam: “a dazzled brain-damaged giant just /gone to sleep awhile, he remembers…”
Miller’s succession of voices are stylistically varied and gripping: the dancing Palmer girls and their beloved Julian; Leo Gabriel, barkeep and musician; Magdala, tending to her flourishing garden; Silva, the Seafarer; Atlas-like Amos and the devout Bonnie Mae; Adjer Stoker and his furnace thriving cats—to name just a few. I found the voices of Nell’s children, Mark and Carrie Beth, to be particularly moving. Like a chorus in a Greek tragedy their doom is announced before you watch it happen. “The day we drowned,/ Carrie Beth pinched me hard, a little purple crescent moon on my inside arm.” Miller catches the child’s voice and attention to detail. Mark explains, the way the older brother would, “We told Toby the last breath/ is never there.” His younger sister drowns to the tune and movement of a waltz, and with tacked-on refrain fashioned from nursery rhyme:
one two three, one two three with a thumb and a finger.
With searing imagery and a deceptively simple rhythm, Miller frames the slow motion horror of Carrie Beth’s drowning, “One/she flirted her skirt; two then/ bent to kiss herself…”
Losses are not lost in Lumina, transformed perhaps, but not erased. Nell’s story--her grief, losses, restlessness and vitality—threads its way through the generations. Nell’s grand-daughter, Lucia, finds herself peering out the very same window from which her grandmother once stared and the first of Nell’s troubles began. Lucia’s sense of entrapment leads to a lonely plaint: “What have you got to lose, Lucia?” she asks herself, “Smelter there; / town here. And in between?” She might be speaking for any one of them. In one of the most beautiful lyric sequences of the book, Lucia addresses her infant with perfect honesty:
Unmarry me, unmother me, let me loose, bright faced as the moon, a fresh white cake still in one piece, unbitten. Can’t you do that?
The voice is compelling and believable, more proof of Miller’s range and masterful ease. Without giving anything away, the infant makes an answer her mother cannot refute. The cycle comes round with Lucia “whose name means light, splendid/ sacramental light, soft as wine/falling freckled and ripe.” Don’t expect to move through Lumina at a leisurely pace, the drama of these voices compels you to sometimes race through the pages, only later returning to slowly re-read and to admire.