Amy Miller’s poetry chapbook Astronauts captures a riveting snapshot of sisterly love intertwined with sibling opposition and explores the woes that come with the struggles of addiction. Miller utilizes cosmic elements as well as typical, day-to-day commodities to ground her readers in the speaker’s harrowing narrative. This heart-wrenching collection encapsulates the melancholy feeling that comes with the grief of being fortunate enough to share a deep, familial connection with someone dear, and losing them altogether.
Miller’s opening poem, a prose piece titled “Baby,” illustrates a scene where the speaker and their sister proclaim that “This ship needs a mascot” and proceed to take home a stray cat as an addition to their family. The speaker notes that the cat prefers them over the sister, that the cat “won’t come to her, won’t go near her / cigarettes, her beer”. A sibling rivalry sparks as a result of the sister’s jealousy towards the speaker, which the speaker details “Later she will say that I / took everything. Did I say I had her baby? No–aborted it years / later.” We find out that the speaker goes on to keep the cat for themself for years to come, one source of the strife between the two siblings, among others.
On top of the discussion surrounding the calamities of sisterly discourse, Miller edges into a space that shares empathy and sentimentality for the speaker’s sister. Her poems “Cop” and “Basement” are a few of the many others that show this bond between two siblings. Each poem succeeds at expressing the many struggles of alcoholism and sexual harassment that young people grapple with in their everyday lives, and goes even further to vocalize the speaker’s ability to understand the sister’s torment and continue to share love for her. The speaker articulates their position to the reader, laying the groundwork by telling them “My sister says that was the year she learned humiliation. I say, You / mean humility. She says, No, humiliation.” and reinforces their sorrow for the sister ending with “You / should have seen her. She was so beautiful.”
Through the speaker’s metaphorical eyes, the reader is able to experience grief for the sister in all of the travesties she undergoes. We watch the sister transform into somebody else entirely new, completely unrecognizable, following the repercussions of life’s setbacks. The speaker describes the situation at hand, “When my sister came back home, she brought Earth, Wind & Fire. / Brought polyester dresses, size 0. Brought pills in a circular pack…” They continue to show the waning progression of the sister devolving into someone barely managing to survive: “She brought bottles and bottles and bottles. / She stored darkness in the empties.” The intensity of this image brings the reader to the brink of feeling the loss of someone who is still there.
As we watch someone steadily decline throughout the end of their life, the loss of that person still hurts as much even if we weren’t watching. Miller depicts this feeling in her poems “We Interrupt This Program” and “Questions About This Mission” with how direct the speaker’s tone is towards the reader. The object of each poem is the death of the sister, and what follows after. The speaker contemplates the sister’s actions, reflecting on how “She never should have idolized that cosmonaut with his / cantankerous jets … The cosmonaut whose heart tore open a little every time / he returned to space.” We are shown how the death of someone suddenly and unexpectedly can instill feelings of guilt and regret, for the things we did or didn’t do. The speaker holds this ache for their sister and shows us: “To admire / the dials and altimeters, the abort switch, the blessed / radio that attached her–infinitely small thread– / to everyone she didn’t know she was leaving.”
Miller also shows us how we can still be touched by someone even after they’re gone. Grief comes in many forms and is not an easy process to go through. We watch the speaker endure these stages of grief in the final pieces of the book, ranging from emotions of anxiety and doubt to finding solace in knowing the sister is at rest. The speaker shows us this progression in thought, at one point calling out “If there is a heaven, will she get to say she broke on through to the other side?” Miller’s final poem “Radio Silence” brings the speaker’s journey full circle in coming to terms with the sister’s death. In one of the last lines, the speaker states, “You would love this, I / wanted to tell her. But her world was somewhere else.” The realization in knowing that not everyone belongs to this world, but maybe another, is a truth that will never be easy to accept.
After reading Astronauts, I was left wrestling with myself over how deeply connected I felt to the speaker’s grief and acceptance of that pain. Miller beautifully takes her readers on a journey that brings us into her story and teaches us the ways in which hardship is necessary for growth. Her poems serve as a reminder that we are only human, and we are all capable of overcoming more than we could imagine.
Astronauts is available at Beloit Poetry Journal.
Z Eihausen is an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she studies English and Philosophy. Her extracurriculars include dancing (poorly), hanging out with bees, playing saxophone, and attempting to make peace with her beloved cat.