STEPHEN SMITH: Kentucky Poet Speaks To Senses
It was a case of synchronicity, plain and simple.
I was chatting with my friend Bethany when she happened to mention -- for who knows what reason -- Western Kentucky University. Apparently, she'd grown up in Bowling Green.
"They had a wonderful poet there," I remarked. "His name was."
"Jim" she interjected.
"Wayne Miller," I answered.
We shared a common acquaintance! So we spent the next hour discussing Jim Wayne Miller and his poetry -- surely an odd topic of conversation at the local watering hole.
Beth knew Miller as a family friend. She had heard her mother speak of him as "the poet," and she met him once when she was living at home.
For me, it was an old story. Miller and I were published by Green River Press in Saginaw, Mich., back in the late 1970s, and we corresponded for four or five years before we both moved on to other publishers.
But the passage of time has not diminished my sure knowledge that Miller was one of the most talented and skillful poets I've ever read. In his lifetime -- he died in 1996 -- Miller produced a significant body of first-rate work, both prose and poetry.
Most notable of his work is a cycle of poems about a "Brier," a migrant from the Appalachians who now lives north of the Ohio River. Use of the Brier character allowed Miller, a native of the mountain community of Canton, to contrast the ways of life in the two regions -- rural Appalachia and northern urban America -- and to observe the relationship of the past to the present.
In his Brier poems, Miller's images are drawn from the Brier's childhood, and the author's insights play on the particular -- road signs, abandoned houses, the encroachment of the postmodern world -- to illustrate the universal, as in his "Night Falling," which balances an evocative lyric with a minimalist narrative:
His mother was sixteen when he was born.
They grew up together.
Now he was older than she was.
But one thing never changed:
night always fell, drifting over fields,
settling softly on the tops of trees,
like his mother's black hair falling over her neck
and down her back when she loosened her
combs in the evening.
But my (most) favorite Miller poem is "How America Came to the Mountains," which was included in the volume "The Mountains Have Come Closer" published by Appalachian Consortium Press in 1980. There's no space in this column to quote the entire poem, but here's a taste:
At first, the Brier remembers,
it sounded like a train whistle far off in the night.
They felt it shake the ground as it came roaring.
Then it was big trucks roaring down an interstate,
a singing like a circle saw in oak
a roil of every kind of noise, factory
whistles, cows bellowing, a caravan
of camper trucks bearing down
blowing their horns playing loud tapedecks... .
It was that storm that dropped beat-up cars
all up and down the hollers, out in fields
just like a tornado that tears tin sheets
off the tops of barns and drapes them like scarves
on trees in quiet fields two miles from any settlement... .
If you're interested in poetry that will speak to you with a consummate human voice, pick up a copy of "The Brier Poems" (Gnomon Press. 160 pages). You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it.
Contact Stephen Smith @firstname.lastname@example.org.
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