“I like the engine roaring to life, a savage
red dogwood shedding its flowers
over the sidewalk, over the fence.
I like your hat with its purple feather,
cheap as melody, cheap as a wish.”
If you don’t know the name Joseph Millar, Google it, learn it, remember it.
He’s a North Carolina poet (and recently named Guggenheim fellow) reading in your local bookstores, writers’ houses and literary festivals. He’s a voice asking to be heard among the chinks and clanks of America’s working-class landscapes; paying homage to the people, poets, objects and culture that populate his past, that have shaped his experience.
He has been called a working-class poet, a poet of the people, a voice of our times. And though I agree with all of this, I hesitate to restrict Millar to such strict categories of thought. His work is expansive and brilliant in his latest collection, Blue Rust, trafficking the everyday world, unveiling and praising the beauty that can be found in living, in the ordinary.
Millar strives to honor those moments that shape the quintessential American experience—ones of isolation and communion, the camaraderie of men, the comfort of women, the legacy of what has come to pass, and the promise of what still might.
His world consists of grit and grease and rust. His poems are always ones of motion—it seems someone, or something, is always arriving, departing: “the night freight coming down,/its engines, its wheels, its sack of ripe grain,/its gray rats grown fat by the iron tracks,/its love-moan traveling back through the rain.”
Cars and boats make frequent appearances, giving the impression of transience, reinforcing the notion that this life, these moments, are fleeting.
However, we must live with these moments, wake with them each morning. As Millar says, “beach with dark rocks, the long boats/drift, the children leave home, no one/speaks. Each night lying down/in our sea-wrack, each day waking/into our skin.”
Divided into four sections, Blue Rust reads largely as an elegy for the past. This is a collection of what is lost, what can’t be lost, the way the past seeps into the present. The tone remains soft throughout—sometimes mournful, sometimes playful—but at the core of each poem resonates a quiet honesty that makes us believe the speaker.
As in his first two collections, Overtime and Fortune, Millar proves yet again to be a master at weaving language and imagery into a rich narrative. His exquisite eye for detail draws you into each poem, building a small world where images begin to roll out like waves or green hills or steel tracks, taking you on a startling ride that leaves you breathless and weak-kneed at the finish.
Consider these poems fossils, imprints, flakes of blue rust—the evidence of living. Part lament and part hope, but, always, with a sense of praise for that which surrounds us.
Carnegie Mellon University Press – 2012