Poetry for Southern California
Book by Michael Miller
|Tebot Bach (tebotbach.org)
Book by Michael Miller
Tebot Bach (tebotbach.org)
Michael Miller’s College Town examines individuality and society through a series of character studies which slowly come together to form a community, and then break apart, leaving the individual alone in the desert. The poems derive their power through the deft use of imagery and the carefully chosen detail.
The opening poem, “Night Companion,” sets the stage with its description of two people together but apart. “Faceless in the dark, we are nothing but promise.”
This is followed by the title poem, which presents the social division of our society through contrasting images — a town where “all the faces/ look warm and dry here, the Lost Boys of Sudan/ sheltered behind glass and glowing/ on the art-house cinema,” and the privileged are “texting/ about free food, gallery show, what time/ do u get off wk” while “the eyes of migrants/... lust from photographs.”
This is followed by sharp character studies. In “The Patrolman Speaks,” Miller describes the appeal of being a policeman to a young child through a description of police cars parked outside a diner:
I gazed at the wheels
that perched under sirens
in the fading brush
like rides at a carnival,
a beckoning field
with the gates unlocked,
all the doors free to touch.
In “The Activists” he conveys their dedication to the cause(s) through “her wounds —/ the mark on her shoulder the picket sign left/ ... the rasp in her voice from shouting at traffic.” There is also subtler imagery in “Woman in the Heights”:
... the way a white oak spreads
behind stoic black gates, the glow of street lamps
catching naked sinew and carved immaculate steel,
the rails fusing with fingertips of vines
which creates the impression of wild passion held in by societal restraints.
Things come together in the centerpiece of the book, the section titled “The Week After Sept. 11.” At first it seems like another collection of characters, the stories of how different people reacted to the terrorist attacks. As in the previous sections, each person is delineated by specific details. The Latino youth, in “The Stepson,” remembers “They draft the white kids last/ my brother said/ and Friday afternoon/ we set ourselves training.” “The Nurse’s Daughter” recalls “The first few days were quiet time./ My father set games for me on the floor,/ opened the drapes, read the news online.” In “The Expatriate,” an Iranian woman “went shopping alone/ for jeans, a tank top, pepper spray.”
But as one reads, one starts to notice how the characters show up in each others’ stories, to realize they all live on the same block. Miller reveals their connections through small incidents and minor details. In “The Stepson” the narrator says “Julio called Navy/ and held his breath in the deep end after school/ until the lifeguard pulled him out choking.” This incident replays in “The Lifeguard”; there it is just another inexplicable incident in a week full of them.
These connections are key to this section, which is not so much about the individuals as the community they become. In the end, most of them come together for a candlelight vigil, and their differences disappear. But more important, the connections are interwoven into their portraits all along with recurring images 3 the candles, the omnipresent TVs. In this way Miller emphasizes how all individuals are interconnected. It took 9-11 to bring them together, but you see they really were a community all along.
But then, in the final section, “The Desert,” Miller explores how we are, at the same time, separate and alone. These poems deal primarily with relationships, loss and solitude. There are poems about breakups, death, and wandering the dessert alone. Interestingly, these are the first poems in the book where the poet seems to inhabit the characters, rather than observing them. Perhaps he is saying that, however much we appear to be together, in the end we all feel alone.
Then, in the final poem, “Blues Man,” Miller gives us the ultimate symbol of feeling alone, the blues singer. Yet the imagery echoes back to the beginning of the book: “At ten, alone,/ he walks by the ghosts of a college town.” The book becomes a circle, the feelings of aloneness and community phases we constantly cycle through. We are constantly simultaneously alone and together.
—G. Murray Thomas
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Eric Morago is the author of What We Ache For, published by Moon Tide Press. He teaches poetry workshops to at-risk youth and is the California Workforce Association’s Poet in Residence. Eric holds an MFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Long Beach.