Review by Conrad Geller
DARKENING THE GRASS
by Michael Miller
6 Horizon Road, #2901
Fort Lee, NJ 07024
To parody a well-known phrase, “I’ve been young and I’ve been old; young is better.”
Michael Miller’s second volume of poetry, Darkening the Grass, stands defiantly for reality and against those cheerful boosters who would sweeten the terrors of old age and death with euphemisms like “golden age,” “senior citizen,” and “final resting place.” Like Miller, I’m in my eighth decade, and I can second his dark vision of the octogenarian state. Growing old, as my doctor told me when I complained about it, is a bitch.
Many of the poems in this volume are not easy to take. In “The Swimmer,” for example, unflinching physical detail about rape (“His moonlit body/ Covered you. His hand gripped a knife/ And his palm pressed on the mattress/ As he worked himself into you.”) is superimposed on the quiet image of the speaker’s beloved swimming in a pond, “Surrounded by a fence of cattails.”
All the poems are intensely personal. In the first part, they are told from a first-person perspective, dealing primarily with a long relationship between the speaker and a beloved woman. Unnamed, called only “you,” she is seen with tenderness and pity, not desire. “Cutting an Orange” turns an almost microscopic lens on an ordinary domestic act, then suddenly pulls back to reveal a universe filled with the obligations of love:
If I can love this orange, what heights,
What horizons can I aspire to?
Can we eat it together,
Facing each other in Massachusetts
With nothing else between us?
Love is a continuing theme here, but it is not the dominating one. Impending death is. A character even older than the poet, Old Bill, dominates Part II. Old Bill’s experience reveals the ongoing nightmare of physical disintegration: “No longer can he bend/ far enough to cut/ His yellowed toenails that/ Wear holes into his socks.” Among Bill’s fears is that his aging wife will die first, leaving him no ballast for his foundering body. In that event, “ Old Bill will swallow/ The pills he hoards/ With a life-emptying act/ Entirely his own.”
Even in Part III, which is about war and its suffering, Miller returns to his theme. “Listening at the VFW” presents a robust survivor of the Pacific War, 85 years old, to whom the poet drinks, “Afraid to tell him/ Anything, knowing/ He has heard it all.” Part III may contain the best poems in this volume, depicting not only the suffering of war but also the strong bond of its warriors. Unlike the ancient war epics in which soldiers die but rarely suffer, Miller’s combat poetry shows pain and the terror of dying. These poems remind me of maybe the best book to come out of World War II, Peter Bowman’s Beach Red (1945), a verse novel that covers the last hour, minute by minute, of a soldier taking part in an island assault. I remember that as a boy I thrilled to the line, “They closed his life’s book and sat on the cover,” a metaphor that, among other things, turned me on to poetry.
The longest poem in the book, “The Wolf,” presents an extended metaphor of the terror of death:
The wolf sits on his bed,
Its eyes reveal nothing
Of truth, of lies,
As he watches it draw closer.
Smells its breath of ashes
And clover, hears its heart
Drumming his name.
The metaphorical wolf in this poem lives in darkness, kept partly in abeyance by birth, sex and natural beauty, but it always “waits for the dark to return.”
The best poetry needs intensity and imagery, certainly, but it also needs a freshness of language, and this is where Miller occasionally nods. Sometimes he falls into the merely expected (the cat-killed bird is a “red-stained quarry”; an old man going to a nursing home is “dragged/ Like a fish on a hook”; a hawk is “a kite without string”). Sometimes the phrasing is simply awkward (“the forced, dark tunnels of his trousers,” “summer-laden air”).
In all, however, this is a rewarding book of verse, carefully crafted, generally avoiding the tempting pitfalls of free verse, and discovering moments of sensual delight, like:
. . . the long-stemmed lily still climbing
Its invisible ladder of light
and of permanent love, like
She brings him cut flowers,
Arranges them in a vase beside his bed,
Then kisses him lightly, lightly
As a butterfly upon his lips.
Conrad Geller has reviewed books, plays, films and especially poetry in a long career. He is also a poet himself, his work having appeared most recently in Rattle #38.