Book Bag: ‘The Soliture of Memory’ by Michael Miller; ‘It’s Hard Enough to Fly’ by Donald Wheelock

Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2022 3:40:43 PM

The Solitude of Memory
By Michael Miller
Passenger Books

 

In his 12th collection of verse, “The Solitude of Memory,” Amherst poet Michael Miller offers a short introduction to the work by describing how, as a young boy, he sat in his uncle’s closet and “put on his dented helmet, gripping the handle of his bayonet.” It was just a year or so after the end of World War II, and Miller was entranced.

“Armistice Day parades and playing war became a focus of my boyhood,” he writes. “I knew nothing of the maimed, the dead.”

Miller, now in his early 80s, would go on to serve four years in the Marine Corps in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and that experience, as well as his ruminations on war’s impact on soldiers, has been a key focus of his poetry — as have love and aging, the beauty of the natural world, and family memories.

“The Solitude of Memory” includes three sections: “Addicted to Light,” “Semper Fidelis,” and “Listening.” In the latter section, Miller explores a new subject: blindness. As always, his mostly short, free-verse poems are models of clarity and phrasing, as well as something else: empathy.

The poems in “Addicted to Light” trace the love between an older couple, with the narrator sometimes looking back on their past to find the links between nature’s beauty and color and the earlier days of the relationship.

In the section’s title poem, as one example, he remembers a visit they made to the Greek island of Patmos, where lemon trees “Held drops of the sun, / Goats stood like sculpture, / Bread was a bleached piece / Of earth baked for the gods.”

“On Patmos our marriage thrived,” Miller writes. “The hot sun led us into / the cooling Mediterranean: / I became addicted to you, / Addicted to light.”

And in “Morning Song,” the narrator, waking to bird call and a ribbon of sunlight through a partially curtained window, remembers the first time he made love to the woman, now silver haired, who’s still asleep beside him: “Shall I wake you, / Touch your arm folded beneath / Your head, your long hair … I let you sleep / I enter the day / Lifting my gratitude / Into a song.”

The poems of “Semper Fidelis” explore much darker visions: of men physically and psychologically scarred by war, like a veteran who had a handsome face before he was shot by a sniper: “Now his wife says / It has character / As she kisses the scar.”

In “The Lieutenant,” a man who fought in Afghanistan knows that the men in his unit who were killed in combat will remain “Embedded in memory,” including a corporal “left in pieces, / a roadside bomb.” The veteran knows “He will never look / at his Lieutenant bars / Buried in his bottom drawer.”

Perhaps the most moving of Miller’s new poems are in “Listening.” These 26 short works, numbered rather than titled, profile an older man who’s gone blind, capturing the realities of his new life with precise details and images, such as how he carefully places his clothes so that there is “a sense of safety, of order / To his entrance into the day.”

The poet has no answer for his granddaughter when she asks him if God made him go blind, and he no longer paints watercolors. But he finds moments of happiness in small things, as when he responds to a cardinal’s call “with his practiced / High-pitched whistle./ Then the unseen bird’s reply, / His joy building to brightness / In his dark world / Where all the birds sing.”

And love remains a constant, with the poet’s wife guiding him gently as they dance in their living room, or describing the trees they’re passing as they walk outside.

“No other poet I know writes so beautifully about seasoned love,” one reviewer writes of Miller. “His poems value clarity, understatement, love in the context of its turbulence, and the accuracy of each detail.”

 

It’s Hard Enough to Fly
By Donald Wheelock
Kelsay Books

 

Donald Wheelock, a composer and professor emeritus of music at Smith College, began writing poetry years ago, in part as an exercise in which he’d look to set the words to music. But eventually those poems “declared their independence from music,” Wheelock notes, and he’s since published his work in several journals and a chapbook.

Now Wheelock, of Whately, has released his first full collection of poetry, “It’s Hard Enough to Fly,” in which he reflects on a range of subjects — sailing, aging, friendship, love, birds — in both free and rhyming verse. And he does that with a sense of wonder and humor and, as he writes in a very brief introductory poem, a desire to write poems with lines “hauled in tight.”

That nautical reference seems appropriate, as the collection’s first section, “Sea Fog,” is devoted to images of ocean and coastline, such as “Outcasts,” a poem about a tiny island — a smudge of rock, really, crowned with a dozen spruce trees — off the Maine coast, and “Hopper’s Dories,” inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1914 painting of several small boats bobbing in a Maine inlet.

“Attentive to the forces of the tide / they point up into open ocean breeze / like hungry pets anticipating food. / They feel the breeze enliven what they see. / A distant shore encloses open sea.”

There are odes to fog — “A second sea rolls in, this air / beneath the sky, a tide above / the silent movements of the cove” — and to a snug winter fire in a seaside cottage. There’s also “Just the Bay,” in which the poet looks back with nostalgia on his past sailing expeditions, knowing that if he were to try it now “the smallest wave would heave me in the drink! / Much easier now to look, to dream and think.”

In “Eighty’s the New Sixty,” Wheelock offers some dry humor, noting he was happy to read that people of that age start losing their subcutaneous fat, thinking it would make him feel less guilty about eating high-calorie foods.

But losing weight also means he now needs “the furnace to deliver / a blast of warmer air before its time / to stop my bony body’s need to shiver … 80 is now 60, I heard this noon; / let winter be like summer, then, and soon.”

Birds, especially during the dreary days of the pandemic, provide the poet with inspiration as he contemplates how they manage to take off and stay airborne in heavy winds, or whether a bird sighted in February is a sign of early spring.

And in “Baltimore Visitors, 2021,” the poet recalls two orioles that searched his yard and trees for food and nest-building materials — but didn’t stay. Their “sweetly tempered voices filtering down from taller trees,” he writes, might just be “small talk” to the birds, but for the poet, it’s “a thrill … to be arrested by a moment’s will to please.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

 


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