Miller vividly paints a picture of his childhood neighborhood, Brooklyn's Fourteenth Ward. It is a place whose streets are filled with people, a place where the ironworks loomed up and the red furnace glowed. There are saloons and brothels and racetracks and street boys and crippled war heroes. Music and shouts filled the air. The streets were ugly and dirty but no one seemed to notice, he stated. This image is what Miller cherishes, but as he grows up, his sense of place and belonging shifts.
Life in the Bowery
Miller spares nothing in his description of Lower Manhattan. In particular, the Bowery is a “dirty handkerchief” which he “walked through day after day, year in and year out—a dose of smallpox whose scars never healed” (73). He focuses on the downtrodden people, especially those of other races; whores; smells and disturbing sights; and the sense that “the dirty throat of the Bowery is choked with clots of phlegm” (72). Miller's grotesque imagery makes this part of New York come alive.
Miller also devotes part of the text to creating images of Paris for the reader. While on the whole more flattering, and indicative of at least some of the reasons why Miller exiled himself to France, he writes of Paris in a frank fashion: “The whores, the music, the crowds, the walls, the light on the walls, the shit and the shit-pumps working valorously, all this forms a nebula which condenses into a cool, waking sweat” (188). Parisians are still greedy, still excrete and fuck and try to curb the ennui that comes from modern urban life. Miller may feel more at home here and more at peace here than in New York, but he goes on to say that “Every night I'm scalped and tomahawked” (188), a metaphor that suggests the wearying experience that is opening up one's body and/or mind to the city.
Miller takes the reader of “The Angel is the Watermark!” on a journey of multiple images as he fashions his painting, some of which can be made sense of, others that elude reality. He includes normal things like a horse, a bridge, a volcano, etc., but the way he describes manipulating them makes any sense of reality slippery and problematic. At the very end, these images that the reader has been holding in their head are washed away, made irrelevant by the fact that Miller apparently washes down the canvas, lets the colors coagulate, scrubs it, and then lays it out flat. This is his masterpiece; this is the “something” that can work against the “nothing,” as he discusses at the end. The final image's impossibility of discernment, its amalgamation of numerous images, its fragmented process, and its precluding of any meaning or understanding is possibly a commentary on the nature of the self and of art.
Black Spring Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Black Spring is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.