In his poem, “Lines Written in Dejection,” W. B. Yeats says in an aging poet’s voice, “Heroic mother moon has vanished / And now that I have come to fifty years / I must endure the timid sun.” In his fourth book of poems, Vanish, Kevin Miller personifies vanishing and ruefully explores the process of aging. The nominalization of the verb—vanish—conjures the unknown, the loss of memory, the attempt of one consciousness to hold onto the things of the world. And unlike the Yeats’s poem, Miller does not endure the sun, but finds quiet moments of domestic transcendence in the timid light.
The opening poem “Vanish” begins:
whispers its swish of sounds
as a trail of breath follows
an image you hold like the title
of the film you saw two nights
ago, no longer on the tip of anything,
Like many poems in this collection, the title runs into the first line not as a marker, but as the beginning of utterance. Ironically, the utterance here is about a speaker losing speech, unable to find the title of the recently viewed film, and the fear such moments can bring, that pang of genuine concern for one’s mental state. Miller’s answer is associative, image heavy, and both disconcerting and comforting—he does not really provide an answer, but offers images that remind the reader that while one may forget movie titles, more important and deeper connections to life remain:
no aftertaste, no crumbs to help
find your way back to a place
you forget being, this little tremor
of fear when the ripples left
by the stone fail to reach the edge,
and the pond is a space as dark
as swallows you remember returning
to the nook above the door
in the garage behind the house
you find only in your sleep.
So begins a book of people, birds, letters, whispers, light, and everyday things. White shirts, candles, music, trails, horses, weather. These poems, while resisting being love poems, really are love poems to the local. “Meeting Like This,” for example, presents the specifics of friends seeing each other,
Jim appears at the bridge
on Yakima Street, I step close
to embrace him. He’s a lumpy
little Buddha in an old sweater.
Miller focuses on small towns in both Washington and Denmark—each tinged with the sense that the local, the details of a place and the way an individual moves humbly through it, are what matter. Those details are what will be remembered. They are redemptive and worthy of devotion. The above poem ends with “I write you and you find me.” The closing line summing up the narrative of old friends reuniting, but also acknowledging the act of writing and publishing poems.
In the title poem, the swallows above the garage matter more than any film title. And it matters that Jim meets on the Yakima Street bridge. But the connection is ethereal, as well—both the thing and a larger connected essence concrete nouns can offer. The poems acknowledge this double. Real life, in all its sensory glory, is elevated here above an intangible projection of light, is tinged with a sense that everything is holy.
These poems are personal, and there is a speaker at the center of them, but the voice refuses to take itself too seriously. Poems about facing one’s own mortality focus on the sock drawer and pull dates on groceries. And every poem has an unfailing inclination towards the other. Grandchildren, current friends, old friends, places, paintings, post offices, and redemptive quiet spaces in the world. The focus is on people, named people, and on the worlds those people inhabit. Often a person is offered to the reader through what they have on their table, or what they bring to show-and-tell (a box of rocks, for example). The clarinet gets more attention than the player, but the poem ultimately is about the person, the music, and the world they make together.
So while people, places, ideas, even the self might vanish, this is not a dark book. It is a book about trust and faithfulness. Trust, as the opening poem implies, that when we cannot remember the film title a deeper, more important image will take its place. These poems are in search of such resonant images. Miller is a poet who knows that the way to the light is through the darkness.
The poems are also interested in the world as it is—one of paradox, pleasure, and pain. One of the final poems, “Anniversary,” ends with these lines:
I hear mourning dove as clear as daybreak
at Hanne’s valley near Ebeltoft.
I break the hollow bone love can be—
my problem with fidelity always fidelity.
Such a paradox is true and perplexing and each poem takes pleasure sitting with those contradictions, which are a part of every life. The epigraph of the book from Roethke’s poem “The Waking”—“What falls away is always. And is near”—leads us into poems that are full of the fallen away which is near.
Years ago, I was a student in Miller’s high school English class. He stood before us reading “The Waking”, and paused at that very line, “that’s my favorite line in all of literature” he said, “that line is true.” It makes sense to me, then, that the sentiment from Roethke sets the tone for this book, a book of lines seeking the truth of things, people, and the devotion it takes to live a rich and meaningful life.