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Whispers, Secrets and Promises. – book reviews

Love has strange powers; its control is unexplainable. Love can
singe souls, lift spirits, weaken the most resistant knees with abrupt
force. Love can inflate or deflate human hearts. Indeed, love can
charge emotion into an abundance of affection. Poets have a way of
rendering a clear view of love and how it affects those people where
love harbors permanently or slips away to leave permanent scars.

E. Ethelbert Miller’s latest collection of poems, Whispers, Secrets
and Promises, explores personal relationships, therefore, the poems
embrace love. Miller writes about his subject in a straightforward way.
His mind, however, is large, and his imagery illuminates the poems.
They are universal, and they have the power to lure the reader inside

The poet also writes about family, his works influenced by marriage
and fatherhood. For example, the first stanza of “When We Are Alone”

I let the children

climb into my bed. They

are afraid to sleep alone.

It is dark and they cannot

see. I feel their small bodies

against mine. A foot pushes into

the center of my chest. I tickle

it and it moves away to join a

silly laugh.

In these opening lines, alliteration and assonance help convey the
meaning. The poet has arranged each line with great care. As a result,
the poem demonstrates a sense of control. For example there are five
syllables in the first line, six syllables in the second line, seven
syllables in the third through fifth lines, nine syllables in the sixth
through eighth lines, and three syllables in the ninth line.

Why are there three syllables in the ninth line? Could it be that
the child’s laughter is overpowering the dark? Could it be that the
“silly laugh” somehow helps the child forget that he or she and his or
her siblings “are afraid to sleep alone” in their own rooms? And yet,
lines four and five seem to signify that the children are too young to
see what’s ahead in their own lives. Although the father is aware of
this fact, he tickles one child’s foot to set the tone. And then he
tells them stories as the poem progresses:

Tonight is a night for stories

and tales filled with monsters

and those funny space things. I tell

my children to hush and listen.

In these four lines, Miller sustains that syllabic control without
lapsing into a singsong rhythm. Each line — except for the second one,
which works especially well to achieve a variety of cadence — has
eight syllables. If the reader does not pause at the end of line three
in this stanza, the rhythmic flow may be more comfortable for the
reader’s ear.

Miller’s line breaks become even more striking in the final stanza:

The stories begin

when we are alone and afraid

of the dark. We need the stories

to hold us. We need the words to

keep us warm.

Like the first stanza, the last line of this stanza also has three
syllables. Yet, the reader cannot help but focus on the meaning of the
words rather than the rhythm of the words.

It is also necessary to point out that there is irony in the second
and third lines of the concluding stanza. In the first stanza, the
reader is led to believe that the children have forgotten about being
afraid. Here, we are told that there is still the need to seek shelter
from the cold fear of being alone and in the dark.

It is important to note that Miller also alludes to Black heritage
in Whispers, Secrets and Promises. In the poem, “When a Man Loves a
Woman,” Miller relies on metaphor:

for 6 months

a man could be

seen in her window

one day she came

outside to show

the joy of her


we touched her

roundness and felt

her world move

The last stanza is the heart of this short poem. In fact, the
stanza can stand alone as a poem on its own merits. Of course, a poem
must work on the literal level as well as the figurative, and the
poem’s meaning is embedded in these last three lines.

Although the title is the same as Percy Sledge’s famous song,
Miller manages to produce the unexpected. At first reading, this poem
seems simple. However, this is the poet’s technique for reeling the
reader into the experience of the poem.

And yet, in other poems — such as “I’ve Been Waiting For a Letter
From You” and “A Painting of a Street In Black And Blue” — Miller
piles image on top of image to establish the poetic mood. Consequently,
the reader can experience the various approaches Miller employs to
transcend his own rich and varied experiences which are depicted in
Whispers, Secrets and Promises.

One cannot understand the true meaning of relationships without
reading this collection, which is significant because of its cultural
and historical depictions. These poems are about survival and they
contain something for everyone.

Lenard D. Moore is a professor of english and poetry at North
Carolina State University, and the author of Desert Storm: A Brief
History (1993); Forever Home (1992); and The Open Eye (1995).

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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