Review by Michael Meyerhofer
by Joseph Millar
Eastern Washington University Press
2001, 61 pp., $29.99
I have always had the deepest admiration for poets who know what to say and what not to say: wordsmiths who sense when it’s time to just shut up and let a scene describe itself, free of heavy-handed pretension. Joseph Millar is such a poet. With wit rivaling that of Tony Hoagland and Stephen Dobyns and a sense of timing and elegance reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, Millar treats the reader to humor and poignant observations complimented by fluid lyricism and superbly orchestrated line breaks. Consider this first stanza from Sitting Bull in Canada, which is about as tight a stanza as any written in the English language:
It’s three years since Little Bighorn,
the Month of Blackening Cherries;
Crazy Horse has been murdered
and civilization keeps rinsing its glittering face in the dawn,
perfecting the treaties and blueprints,
while the railroad pushes its stained fangs
west through the rivers of grass.
In just eight lines, Millar not only sets the stage but uses masterful alliteration and imagery to take a scene that might very well be cliché in the hands of another poet—the tragic mistreatment of Native Americans—and makes it seem not only engaging, but unexpectedly poignant. While some poets surprise us with lyrical end-runs, Millar utilizes an uncompromising, direct approach that sacrifices nothing and astonishes the reader with its heartfelt grace.
Though Millar’s poems often address the lives and attitudes of Middle America, they do so without that air of condescension often present in today’s socially conscious narrative poetry. Put another way, Millar’s poems are the antithesis of snobbery. For instance, in “Autumn Rainfall,” Millar describes a woman who “…makes her supper late, moving slowly / in the bare kitchen, between the entertainment channel / and the glass tray of leftovers bubbling in the oven.”
While these lines contain obvious commentary on the human condition, they provide said commentary in a way that resonates with tenderness and humility. Also, as a matter of style and craft, Millar knows how to calm the reader and engage him/her before elevating his language for the profound observation that follows in the next stanza: “To be brave is to be tired much of the time, / half stunned by the continual dusk.” Now, a lesser poet might have been charmed into beginning the poem with that line, based on its music and meaning, whereas Millar’s approach seems infinitely more affecting because he allows the poem to open with a character, relying on image and description rather than the ruminations of a heavy-handed narrator.
And when Millar does begin his poems with the narrator, he knows the best way to convey a serious point is not to take himself too seriously. One perfect example is “Sunday Night,” a poem about mortality and guilt, that begins on a humorous and unassuming note: “This is my first time trying to make beef stew / and I remember the Indian stories / about thinking kind thoughts while cooking…” Here’s another example from “Names I’d Forgotten”: “I used to get drunk in the morning, starting awake / in the sinister warmth of the couch, tangled up / in my raincoat and pants like a trapped animal.”
Millar also goes beyond the self with that same biting wit, as in poems like “Heart Attack”:
You’ve always suspected the voice of defiance
would carry you only so far, wondering
when your life might end
even as you lounged on the high school steps
smoking a Lucky Strike.
In those days you considered it honorable
to make yourself drunk with fear…
As much as I like Millar’s sense of humor, though, I think what’s most pleasing about these poems is their humanity, their blend of strength and vulnerability. “Somehow I’ve told her everything,” Millar writes. “In this bed I’ve exploded every grief into her body, one by one… the drinking, the failed marriages and jobs, / the weight of my children pressing me down.”
Joseph Millar’s Overtime is one of those rare books that combines narrative brevity with lush descriptions, the result being a book that is both accessible and joyfully, smartly lyrical. This can be seen in the opening line of “Love Pirates”: “I follow with my mouth the small wing of muscle / under your shoulder, lean over your back, breathing / into your hair and thinking of nothing” Another prime example is “Ed’s Auto Repair”, one of my favorites from this book, in which the narrator watches a mechanic’s “…torch flame splash / its lizard shapes onto the dark steel.” Like all of Millar’s poems, “Ed’s Auto Repair” resonates with visceral, luxurious descriptions: a shop “smelling of gas and iron,” “air hoses [hissing] in the corners,” “the shadows under the muffler, / the new metal ticking.”
I first came across Millar’s work in various literary journals and was immediately struck by Millar’s ability to accomplish some kind of lyrical feat in every line without sounding heavy-handed. I ordered this book and have been recommending it ever since. In short, Overtime is just a lovely example of wordsmithing at its best. Pick it up; your bookshelf will thank you!
Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also won five chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals, and can be read online at www.troublewithhammers.com.