Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Poetic Afterthoughts: Mike White’s Addendum to a Miracle

Jean Valentine, when once asked about the difference between a short poem and a longer poem, answered that a short poem was “like putting your face in icy water.” The water in Mike White’s Addendum to a Miracle, winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize in Britain, is indeed intense and icy cold, but it’s more than that—these predominately (though not exclusively) short poems are lively and precise, unpredictable and yet expertly premeditated. This is a collection defined by a palpable wit and guided by a sturdy hand. There is nothing superfluous in this Addendum—it is a book in which every word and every thought is essential.This is icy water worth diving into, regardless of the shock.

The collection begins with a poem that serves as a preface to the first of the three sections. It can be seen as explanation of sorts for the book, but that is deceptively simple, and being appealingly deceptive is a trait the book will revisit throughout. The poems are often simple enough to seem to reveal themselves on a first reading, but subsequent readings uncover additional depth.

On the surface, “Alley in Winter,” the first poem in the collection, explains the aesthetics of the book, and does so quite directly: “May the body/of work be//beautiful.” It starts by creating an almost-prayer of positivity for the collection at its outset, by wishing beauty on the “body/of work”, but this is a collection that, in my mind, isn’t particularly interested in prayer for spiritual purposes but in deconstructing religion (a theme present both early and late in the book).

As the title states, these aren’t miracles as much as afterthoughts to miracles. The prayer for beauty is expanded by the revelation of how the poem sees beauty:

May the body
of work be


as the fire

escape is


The short lines in this short poem (as they do for so many of these poems) lead each subsequent line to a discovery. The poem is as beautiful as a fire? Not quite. It’s a fire escape, something less sublime, perhaps, but also something that facilitates rescue, rather than potentially causing damage.

Perceptions of beauty (and of the world at large) are their own throughout, always surprising, always turning. Ultimately in this poem, the layers keep adding on, and not even the fire escape itself is what we are left with as a symbol of beauty: the escape is “dazzled in ice/after the fire.”

So if we look at this eight-line poem as a sort of invocation, we can see that White is wishing the poems that follow possess the beauty of that fire escape that, whether employed after the fire or not, has gone on without the harshness of the fire dictating its aesthetics. The fire escape is “dazzled in ice,” something the violence of the fire couldn’t change. Here, fire and ice commingle and ice is still standing. The reader’s face is submerged in Valentine’s icy water.

Beauty is a theme that is revisited throughout but, much like White’s perceptions of miracles, the definition of beauty is not as easy as it may seem. “Thing of Beauty” starts with the line, “I want my goldfish,” sending the reader back to double-check that title. But the poem moves from the goldfish to what the goldfish represents—“orange” and “childhood/when orange was all/the rage.”

So the poem’s beauty is tied to nostalgia? Again, assumptions can’t be made too quickly in a Mike White poem, but fortunately these poems move so quickly a reader doesn’t wait long for the next turn. The sepia-tinged nostalgia of childhood we might expect is pulled away from us again almost immediately, by the goldfish image returning to the poem in the form of a goldfish being eaten alive by a friend.

These poems are fast, but always in control. Also, while short and often image-driven, they are poems of voice and distinct personality — witty when one expects them to be somber, darkly philosophical when one is prepared to laugh. That goldfish-eating friend, we are told, “changed/schools after setting/fire to enough things.” As in the opening poem, fire is present, but it is only discussed as something that has happened offscreen. In both poems, fire has happened either before or elsewhere. What matters isn’t the fire itself, but the ice on the fire escape or, in “A Thing of Beauty,” the “terrible secret words” the speaker uttered as the fiend committed his act. Both fires have left no external marks, but affected the speaker because of what the speaker knows happened, and what the speaker once did. “A Thing of Beauty” unfolds as a confession, not for being a central figure in an act of cruelty, but for egging it on. As is the case with so many poems, understanding the poem is dependent upon its surprising and deliberate movements from line to line.

This is a book in which one line can immediately (and often delightfully) undercut the prior line. The poems grow line to line and, mostly, that growth creates surprises and turns. These are not poems where the first lines give you a map of where the poem will end, though that should not be taken as an indication that the poems feel in any way haphazard or random. They most definitely do not. For example, “Dying” begins with a line that follows directly from its title: “is as natural as breathing.” The italics set the line up as an epigraph of sorts, though the line is formatted directly within the poem. But the next line, which follows after a stanza break, immediately refutes the cliché of its predecessor: “Who in the hell writes these things?” These poems not only can twist and change, but they can argue amongst themselves as well.

While the book is filled with short poems, it is not exclusively so, and the longer ones (with notable exceptions like the long-lined voice-driven poem “So, If Everyone Else Jumped Off a Bridge”) read like short poems, driven by striking images that move quickly from one to the next, but leave the reader surprised by the poem’s movements and turns. This is especially true of a longer poem like “Leavings,” composed of three-line stanzas that, with the aid of an extra space between them, feel independent from one another though connected by their shared place within the poem and their unified voice. (Maintaining the unpredictability of so many of these poems, the reader’s perception of the lines is changed by an author’s note at the end of each that reveals the unexpected origins of the words within).

A collection composed solely of short lyrics, even quite good ones, can be an unsettling read, as if eating too much candy too quickly. But White knows how to vary the sugar rush. While the poems move, again quite quickly, there is variation in the approaches and a presence of voice that always makes each poem stand out and not get lost within the rush.

Addendum to a Miracle is a terrific collection, one that moves with precision and speed, but never leaves the reader behind. White is a poet who needs to be read.



A Thing of Beauty


I want my goldfish

back. By goldfish

I mean childhood

when orange was all

the rage. Davy ate his

alive and changed

schools after setting

fire to enough things.

The way through

the dark what is it?

With terrible secret words

I cheered Davy on

and he shone.


Mike White is an associate professor of English and Undergraduate Studies at the University of Utah. Addendum to a Miracle is his second collection of poems.


Addendum to a Miracle
Mike White
The Waywiser Press
96 pages

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