NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Home and Away: The Old Town Poems by Kevin Miller
(Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, New York, 2008)
Kevin Miller is a teacher by profession. At the time of this publication, he had worked in the public schools of Washington State for thirty-six years. In 1990-91, he was a Fulbright Exchange teacher at Grenå Handelsskole, Grenå, Denmark. He lives in Tacoma, Washington.
His first collection of poems, Light That Whispers Morning (Blue Begonia Press) received the Bumbershoot / Weyerhaeuser Publication award in 1994. Blue Begonia published his second collection, Everywhere Was Far in 1998. Miller was the recipient of an Artist Trust Grant in support of his second collection and a grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission in support of the present collection.
As the title suggests, the book is divided equally into two halves. The first half is titled “Home” and the second half is titled “Away”. The poems in both these sections are firmly grounded in the everyday occurrence—the small things in life that can easily go unnoticed unless they are picked up and moulded into something more significant. Days are made of small acts, Miller writes, and it is the accumulation of these acts that make up a life. His subjects are children in class, a teacher on lunch duty, a college girl driving north with everything she owns, events around a kitchen table, a man washing dishes. In some ways they run the risk of being too domestic, too caught up in the ordinary but at his best, Miller can leave you with a haunting image that stays in the mind long after the poem has been read.
In Poem for Jonas Before Independence Day there is the scene of the man running for the bus. It breaks into the poem somewhat unexpectedly which is one of the delights of Miller’s own inimicable style:
Nothing frees my sleep of the man racing
after his bus. He waves one hand, his raincoat
no more help than the briefcase banging his knee.
The driver always sees him and continues.
Interest is built up through the accumulation of seemingly random incidents. In First Winter, for example, a man delivers heating oil, beer chills in the grocery store, a mountain of corn glistens with frost in the feed store and a young wife walks a mile to work. A similar approach is adopted to the composition of Tacoma, the poet’s home town, where
The wind rattles the mail slot with missives
The paperboys have an hour before work.
Not all of Miller’s poems worked for me. There are some, for example, Three Bridges Building, that feel as if they are incomplete while others could have gained from further revision. Some, such as Anniversary: Four Plus Change, are a little too elusive and therefore fail to satisfy. This is unfortunate because the imagery in the poem is powerful and deserves to be understood. I have read this poem several times and still struggle for clarity.
The strongest poems make their appearance in the second half of the book. The opening of Miller’s poem called What Muriel Taught Jim and Jim Taught Me, for example, is beautifully crafted with not a word out of place:
The small boy with the hair like startled sleep
sits near the girl who looks to the floor
when you call her name. The boy’s voice
is crystal, all edges and angles squeaking
more than he should to stay invisible.
She is no voice at all.
They sit near the door away from the others.
away from the whispers and laughter.
Unsurprisingly, Miller is particularly at home when writing about children and school. In One Kind Boy he writes:
Some boys are calm water,
clean sheets, chimney smoke
straight to the sky.
They are expected weather.
Not all the poems in this book are about people but even the nature poems assume some form of human characteristic. In Old Town Pears—a poem about fruit that fails to reach maturity, we are told that they are
Never to be bigger than this moment
when the sun shows their freckled faces
dumb in afternoon light…
while in Wasps we are treated to something much more edgy; which has the capacity to develop into much more than what the opening line, cocktails at the barbecue, might suggest:
the new couple wear Bermudas,
his shirt is plaid, her silk top
as cool as condensation
on a martini glass. The hostess
knows the havoc of summer,
the dangers of a thin waist
and a striking ass.
That same edginess informs other poems in this volume. Returning to One Kind Boy Miller writes that
Possession has power as dark and deep
As black leather, and no one mentions
The soft cushion of its feel.
Similarly, in the poem What Stopped You For Years we sense the restrained emotion, tight-knotted and bottled up, that builds beneath the surface:
Kelly serves your coffee. You address her this once
by name. Even Good Morning wants a story.
You tell her the title of a book you wish you read
At twenty-three. The man in the tweed cap
And windbreaker sits across from you for three years.
Every morning the two of you keep within your news.
Miller’s vocabulary is restrained. His wording is precise. There are no extended forays into lavish descriptions of urban or rural settings. There is nothing extraordinary going on in the language that he chooses to use. The main strength of these poems lies in their ability to portray to the reader every passing moment of every passing day in a way which can be arresting. There are times, however, when the language is so controlled, one longs for the flight of fancy that never actually comes.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013) and The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014).