Poetry - Honorifics

Honorifics book cover - painting of flowers in the style of Dutch Masters but smeared

Tony Cross is reading all the books and poems shortlisted for this year's Forward Prizes for Poetry. Here are his thoughts on Honorifics, the debut collection by Cynthia Miller...

Honorifics is Cynthia Miller's first collection of poems. It's a wonderful collection. I enjoyed it a lot. In her acknowledgement's Miller says: "All my love to my family - Mom, Dad, Ashley, as well as extended family in Malaysia and Minnesota - who are the beating heart of this book." And that's true.

This collection explores identity through family and family experience (although that is not the only thing the collection explores, which I'll come to later.)

A lot of recent poetry I've read talks about the issues of identity for second - or more - generations of immigrants. Of how to balance the competing identities of the country you live in and the cultural you come from. In Miller's case an extra complication has been added by the fact that she now lives in Britain. One of the poems in this collection 'The Home Office' is both a brilliant poem and a perfect polemic against the mindset of the Home Office. It ends with words from Theresa May, from when she was Home Secretary. As someone who would like the Home Office re-built from the ground up this poem really hit home.

Not everything is about family. There's a lovely suite of poems about jellyfish. Indeed, water features a lot in this collection. On a very personal note, in "The impossible physiology of the free diver" there's a section of the poem when she talks about sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool to see how long she can hold her breath, which reminded me of when I found myself sitting patiently on the floor of a Spanish hotel swimming pool after having fallen in. I couldn't swim so I was basically waiting to drown. My Dad rescued me. But there was something about that meditational waiting that Miller catches:

"I was a little god on the floor
of the world looking up." (p64)

Another thing that comes up a lot in this collection is food both as a cultural signifier and as a memory hook. One of my favourite poems in the collection, "Persimmon abecedarian", is the perfect example. The fruit is a seed to grow a poem that is about family, immigration, love and cooking:

"...This is my
personal definition of luminous, a
quiet moment in the kitchen, my mother chiding me
Remember to call home from time to time." (p71)

Miller also plays with the topography of the page. There are interestingly laid out poems. Some look like blocks of prose, some are split to reflect different timelines. It all helps make for an excellent collection. There are lines and poems that have burrowed their way into me. My copy is full of underlining and notes.

I could go on for ages. If you haven't worked it out already I like this collection a lot. In fact, I may have said that right at the beginning. I will read it again. I look forward to digging more out of it on every read.

I'll end with a little bit of Miller's poetry. Just a couple of lines from the five-part poem "Portmeirion".

"My body takes on sadness the way lily pollen stains everything,
Accidentally, gently, permanently." (p17)

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

About The Forward Prizes

The Forward Prizes are a celebration for those who love contemporary poetry, in association with the Forward Arts Foundation. The winners of this year's prizes will be announced at a ceremony on 24th October. Here are the shortlists:

The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Collection

Kayo Chingonyi – A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus)
Tishani Doshi – A God at the Door (Bloodaxe Books)
Selima Hill – Men Who Feed Pigeons (Bloodaxe Books)
Luke Kennard – Notes on the Sonnets (Penned in the Margins)
Stephen Sexton – Cheryl’s Destinies (Penguin Poetry)

The 2021 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection

Caleb Femi – Poor (Penguin Poetry)
Alice Hiller – bird of winter (Pavillion Poetry)
Cynthia Miller – Honorifics (Nine Arches Press)
Holly Pester – Comic Timing (Granta Poetry)
Ralf Webb – Rotten Days in Late Summer (Penguin Poetry)

The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem

Fiona Benson – ‘Androgeus’ (Times Literary Supplement)
Natalie Linh Bolderstone – ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ (National Poetry Competition)
John McCullough – ‘Flower of Sulphur’ (Poetry London)
Denise Riley – ‘1948’ (Poetry Ireland Review)
Nicole Sealey – ‘Pages 22-29, an excerpt from The Ferguson Report: An Erasure’ (Poetry London)

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