And onto the meadow
Where the tall grass bends like the backs
Of women working in a field.
Milkweed leans in the breeze,
Wildflowers are closed,
And I sense something
In the distance, alive, watching me.
I pause and stare; he is there:
The young figure of the man I was.
He did not think of death.
Michael Miller’s third book of poetry, Darkening the Grass, examines the life of a poet in his eighth decade. In sparse and vivid lyricism, these poems consider domesticity with both contentedness and urgency to cherish it. Miller writes with a tone of disclosure. He tells the reader, for instance, that love “Continues because it does, / Because it falls with / The last snow of winter / and rises with the tulips.”
The collection begins with the poem “Waiting” which addresses the younger self. On the figure of the wife, he writes: “The woman who would say his name / And calm his hunger / I want to tell him: Be patient, / She is there waiting.” Later, he describes waking next to her as, “Our bodies ease into openness / Like morning glories climbing / The trellis behind the house.” Indeed, “the house,” with its definite article, is unambiguous: it is their known, shared space. The garden that appears throughout Darkening the Grass also brings the poet to gratitude; the irises “like twists of sea and sky” exist “Without knowledge of the bloom to come.”
On the other side of youth’s anxiety is relishing in routine: “Each morning I cut an orange” a poem begins, and each morning the wife’s kiss is “a soft feather of life.” The powerful word “each” is complicated and explored in “Each Day,” a longer sectioned poem that introduces Old Bill, a ninety-year-old man who lugs “one leg after the other” through his day. Though he is curmudgeonly he reveals his emotional needs to the reader. For instance, birds accompany and resonate acutely with Old Bill. In this context they’re not merely metaphors or near abstractions; here, the birdsong draws “him / Out of his shrunken body / And allow him to feel, / Momentarily, so happy.”
The emotional state, however, is never far from tipping into panic. Over a raspberry pancake, Old Bill “Imagines death at breakfast, / And when his wife passes / The syrup he wants to grasp / Her hand around the bottle / And never let it go.” The red of the raspberry is enough to make him tremble. Whereas the world seems solid from the kitchen table or porch, our connection to it, these poems seem to say, is entirely precarious.
Terror—a cobra with “yellow diamonds” for eyes—exists everywhere. If not in the warm light of day amidst the birds, then surely at night when the narrator “pretends the woolen blankets / Are a body covering him, / Pretends that a woman / Is lying upon him, taking / His terror into her lair.” Fear is not limited to the narrator considering his own death but extends into his memory of those no longer here.
This grieving appears most notably in the book’s middle section where Miller elegizes Corporals, Lieutenants, and Privates. The characters no longer dwell in the garden or at breakfast but exist in a theatre of war. In the poem “Young Marines” our narrator places limbs in “A body bag that I am still carrying.” These narratives highlight both explosive moments (shrapnel and blood in the sand) and also show the Marines back home, quiet with tremendous loss:
He is not in Iraq,
He is waking in New Hampshire.
Now rise, lieutenant,
Pretend you have left it behind,
Pretend it will not affect
How you live this day
Miller’s language, here and elsewhere in Darkening the Grass, carries the earnestness and conviction of a maxim. At times it seems he turns to the reader to speak candidly; to live past eighty, he states, you reach “An age that befriends the soul.”