Kiran Bhat Reviews Graeme Miles’s Infernal Topographies

By | 10 March 2021

The poems in this collection tend to explore the meaninglessness of conjecture as a whole. In poems like ‘I was the last one left’, a narrator ‘[grades his] brother-in-law’s Russian paper, knowing neither [person] knew Russian.’ Similarly, the poem ‘Infernal Topography’ grounds itself in the premise of ‘[joining] the club for people who like to be close to great white sharks’. But the best example of merging the absurd with the cosmic can be found in the poem ‘Vehicle’:

A  mortal and a god step into
a vehicle. The god of course disguised
as the mortal’s mortal friend. Could be 
Athena or Krishna

As if Athena or Krishna are just everyday mates that hop into cars. Yet, from the way the poem is set up, almost like a punchline of a joke, and with the unwieldly repetition of mortal, Miles has signalled this is not a poem meant to be taken too seriously. Miles is shaping a moment, and as readers, we largely are meant to enjoy the ride. It is not as clear whether the narrator is. The God is fear-inspiring, evidenced by being able to ‘strip shadow from an eye’. Yet, the God uses ‘ambrosia to cover the weird smell, the ripe reek that hints at its ending’.

As if Gods too suffer from odiferous BO. The drive commences, and the mortal feels like ‘electric fragments that tumble down and up the spine, occluding each other, entangling too’.
Because it’s naturally intimidating to drive with a God,

You’re  shaken, [and] the god can see that, 
so pulls over. By way of consolation 
you’re allowed to look down 
into the driver’s mouth.

Miles is referencing a moment in which Krishna’s foster mother Yashoda catches him eating dirt, and asks Krishna to open his mouth. Rather than seeing dirt, Yashoda sees the entire universe, and much like the mortal in the poem, is overwhelmed by the exposure. And yet Miles reflects the universe not into the infinitude, but into the ego of the individual:

it’s  okay that the millions of years
between extinctions run through,
and you see inside that mouth
yourself looking in,
your shoulders relaxed, eyes fixed
on the shifts from cells and thermal vents
to eyes and mouths, and thoughts about thoughts
about thoughts.

Rhapsodic and elegant, Miles’s poems hit the right spot between being playful and self-effacing. At the same time, it is from this sort of literary mischief that Miles reaches his unique philosophical conclusions. Whether he is probing a memory or exploring a nonsensical conjecture, Miles examines them to their deepest extents in Natural Topographies, and with his abandon, he has rendered an experience or state of mind holistically to his reader.

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