The Poetry of Kevin Miller

Books discuss in this essay:

VANISH, by Kevin Miller. Wandering Aengus Press. 81 pages. © 2019. $18.00

HOME & AWAY: THE OLD TOWN POEMS, by Kevin Miller. Pleasure Boat Studio. 85 pages. ©2008. $15.00

EVERYWHERE WAS FAR, by Kevin Miller. Blue Begonia Press. 96 pages. ©1998. $13.00

LIGHT THAT WHISPERS MORNING, by Kevin Miller. Blue Begonia Press. 84 pages. ©1994. $11.0

By Jim Bodeen                                                

In the summer of 1988, Kevin Miller, then teacher-poet, now poet-teacher, and a group of approximately 20 other teacher-writers from the State of Washington, gathered at the Centrum Foundation in Port Townsend, Washington, for a week-long workshop hosted by Centrum, to work on their writing. They brought their poems. Where we met. For more than 30 years we've been exchanging poems and letters.  Kevin Miller is a man of letters. I am one of the many with whom he exchanges correspondence. I am also one of the few. Letters. Poems. Post cards. Music. This is a witness to the size of the project, the work that is daily that is not a project.

Kevin Miller's newest book, Vanish, was published just as Covid-19 was breaking open. Because we happened to be visiting Kevin and his wife Cammie at Sun River, Oregon, just South of Bend, with a two-fold purpose; to help celebrate and bless their newly acquired cabin, and to attend the book presentation of Horizon by Barry Lopez. We spent the weekend with the Miller's in January, and as we were about to leave for home, Kevin read a news headline about a new virus and possible pandemic. Kevin's announcement was weeks ahead of the President's.

Wandering Aengus Press, has awarded Vanish with its Press Award winner for 2019. Vanish is Miller's fourth book, and its cover features an image, Ghost Trees, by Seattle photographer,  Vance Thompson, whose work is known by the moniker SilverDarkness.

By publishing Vanish, Wandering Aengus Press lifts its own visibility and prestige while it further validates Kevin Miller as one of the Northwest's most beloved and accomplished poets. Wandering Aengus Press states its purpose as being dedicated to enrich lives.

This fourth major publication, Vanish, validates a senior poet whose list of publications, along with his process of submitting work far and wide, practices his art by following the highest and purest principles of working discipline and dedicated adherence to publishers. Along with his writing practice, Miller is one who shows his faith in the poem and mirroring his belief in those who toil for publishing opportunities.

Miller's quiet discipline honors, too, quiet and disciplined poets in his community of correspondents. Loren Sundlee, Barry Grimes, Nancy Takacs, Allen Braden, Robert Benefiel. Lynn Martin who taught side by side with him for years. Former students themselves doing important work, like Derek Sheffield. Friend and colleague, Roland MacNichol. Casey Fuller. Names of people who flood Miller's heart in post card poems and letters. Kathy Morrison-Taylor, Jeremy Voigt, Garrett Chavis, Edwin Romond. Names we would not know but for Miller's poems. Miller's poems and letters are important because of his heart-depth. Daily presence in language. He is an important poet because his work is soaked in this compassionate detail, and Miller's four books show his commitment and belief in poetry as a human endeavor. As I begin, this detail. Barry has remembered what I had not. We were outside on a picnic table at McDonald's reading Carver's poems, he said. A small book, with both poems and stories in it, yes. But which book? I'm thinking maybe it's listed in Carver's poems at the front. Opening All of Us, Carver's collected poems, I re-discover this, Barry had given me the book ten years later, in August, 1999, for my birthday. He writes:

        and back then, in August 1988, we were reading his poems in 

        the Bukowski poem, at P. Townsend, during the workshop we met

        Kevin, etc., and Carver dies. Today, for your birthday, ALL OF US. 

                                     Best, BG--

May this beginning serve the spirit of this reading of Kevin Miller's work and how he works and lives as a man and a poet.

First poem, Vanish, set apart, its own section. Bold title--bold opening first poem. Vanish. Anything missing in your life? Title, into first line.

Not a voice, a whisper. Vanish whispering.

           Vanish // whispers its swish of sound

Go back and get it. Title, first word, first line, follow it: Vanish // whispers its swish of sound 

            as a trail of breath follows

            an image you hold like the title

            of the film you saw two nights

            ago, no longer on the tip of anything

Where'd it go? That thought, this air, food in your mouth. Eating? That, too. Crumb. Aftertaste.

Being itself. Tremor of fear, too. Even that? Ripple, stone, edge. Turning and being turned.

Vanish sets the table. It is the poem before the poems. One set apart. Its own half-title page. Always is gone, and what's near is far. In Miller's work pay attention to the epigraph. Open the book now, turn the page, here before you, White Shirts and Piaget's Car, readiness is all, before the young prince, you read, you're in the garden, it's Saturday. This is yard work and that in your hand, it's the scuffle hoe and what happened to your life:

                              you joke

            about connecting dots,

            the constellation of scars

            for stars, a map to trace

            labor days, buck twenty-

            five an hour, ten-cent beers

            and fears this was your life.

Careful. Be careful. Count the letters, the s-sounds, the t-s. C-K sounds. Joke, connect, constellation, scars, stars, trace. B in labor, buck, beer. Os found early, the vowels. Careful work, Kevin Miller. He'll say something like, I don't make furniture. Those of us who know his poems know he like a well-made poem. If you're lucky enough to have seen Kevin read, you know he's conducting. He's singing.

This was your life. Imperceptibly it almost got away from you.

            You see the way weeds

            cover the bed you made

See how it works. How does this hit you. Leave you. Make you feel.

I love the way this rooted Irish-Catholic poet turns towards the Buddha.

Talking, writing about the poem Vanish in the context of Miller's work is deliberate on my part. Choosing Yard Work to write about as I sat down to begin this essay, was random. I didn't know what I'd find. I did know, it sounded like Kevin, Kevin grounded, sitting, being there, facing the work, not onstage under the lights. Kevin's a birder. Out in the yard, waiting. Watching. Listening.

Here's another, Dishes, not from Vanish, but from Far And Away: The Old Town Poems, from 2008. Dishes is one of my favorite Kevin Miller poems. It begins,

            Mornings while she sleeps

            he empties the sink

he tells you how he does it. One can feel the dishrag in one's hand. The coffee's started. This, too, is in the poem. This day, he finds / a new sponge near the faucet/ and he scrubs pesto from the bowl. How do poems work? Found wonder in the interplay of sounds forks make, quiet music in the morning house getting ready for the day. The poet…thinks of the president,

                      and though he has no envy,

            he wonders when the last time

            he knew dishwater up to his wrists,

            felt the inside edge of a bowl

            come clean in his hands.


Give that poem some room. When poems move into my life like Dishes, and when I read it in a book and I'm somewhat conscious, it feels somehow wrong to turn the page, as if to say, OK, I get it, I've given you this much time. One resents not only one's practice in reading, but one's training. One can even resent the book, and for surrendering to it. The president has only so much time for others. Even he must move on. One asks, What is a book? What is prayer?

Let's look at another poem, this one from Everywhere was Far. The poem is called Look at This, and the poet is looking at a postage stamp, considering the Post Office, commemorative stamps, what we hold on to, and something of what literature is. Permit me a digression here. After a half-century of writing poems and letters with friends, involved to, in the small press publishing world, it still catches me off guard to consider our lives as being lives given to the making of literature. The poet Sam Hamill, more than forty years ago, first talked about this with me, what our responsibilities were regarding the fact of what we were doing, and the enterprise we were engaged in. Making literature. My God. And all the great writers surfacing before me, at once, cigarette smoke and beer swirling about the room. Permit me one other statement. Not so much as coming clean, but to set forth the purpose of this essay.

The task before me in this essay, is to look at the poems of Kevin Miller over four books and forty years of writing poems, of being a poet. This is not a book review of Vanish, timely and as necessary as that may be in the time of Covid-19 quarantine and a poet with a new award-winning book. The task is also one of going beyond the four books of Kevin Miller. To write only about the poet and his achievement in publishing and in becoming, in fact, in process of living, it is necessary to say here, that I once considered this essay to be mainly about Miller's writing outside of the four books being discussed here. 

I have been arguing with myself over this subject for the past six months. Kevin Miller the poet, I argued, can best be written about through his correspondence outside of the books. That's what I wanted to explore. This became a daily conversation with myself. It got in the way of me writing about Vanish in a similar way that his post card poems, his poems attached to letters, and the letters themselves, became too large for me to write about. The four books identified here yield, and acknowledge what I believe to be a large truth. Perhaps, they bring my own ambition closer to the dishes before me in Kevin's kitchen sink, doing the dishes. My job here is to do the dishes.

Miller begins this poem, Look at This

            new Tennessee Williams stamp,

            the state of his name.

Like that. Title, line break, stanza break, startled himself into silence. A full pause, and the recovery of wonder. Regarding punctuation, no-punctuation after line breaks, Sam Hamill once told me that he considered a line break as half a pause, and to consider this before placing a comma at the end of the line. Consider the silences opening the poem. Consider the comma after stamp. Consider the craftsman Kevin Miller and the pop and wow of Williams looking at you as you pick up your mail.

            He looks regal, his steamy stare.,

            the shadow smolders…

Go back and pick it up: this, stamp, state, steamy, stare, shadow, smolders.

Go back and look at the vowels: a, e, i, o, u.

Go back again and say, new. Say, Make it new.

Get to the dusk in the poem. The really good dusk,/ when sweat starts to cool.

Time for whiskey and cigarettes on the porch. In the second stanza, Miller shifts to the Post Office itself, It's a damn fine little program, the poet writes, and this post office, well, followed by a reference to Nixon, and these three lines:

            This is the prayer

            I want to hear in the schools,


I won't give away the poem, but Miller's not through with names, remember Jesse Helms?, and I'm pleasuring myself as I read:

            …imagine him licking its backside.

Younger readers won't remember the taste of stamps, or of licking them. They may need schooling in the history of taboos. And nipples in Whitman. There are other pleasures in this poem, perhaps more personal, and private. Consider the stamps on our letters being mailed and the stamps placed on the envelopes over thirty years. I can tell you that there's as much pleasure in selecting the stamp for a letter, as there is in receiving it, in studying it, before opening envelopes for letters.

About to set aside Everywhere Was Far, I remember Kevin's deep reading of Colm Toibin's book, The Heather Blazing, His title comes from the book, and quoted in the opening epigraph. I give you the sentence after Everywhere Was Far. He walked: took step after step and allowed himself to think only about the ground he had already walked along.

Consider that reading anywhere in Kevin Miller's work.

We met at Centrum in the late 1980s. Many of the teacher-writers had credentials as teachers and writers. The conference had an edge and shadow in its credibility. The teacher or the artist.   Whiff of condescension through it all, among invited teachers and artists. Subliminal is in the room.

In the decade prior to this conference, I had started Blue Begonia Press after becoming involved in a letterpress workshop with Copper Canyon Press, and having sent students to Centrum for writing workshops. Barry Grimes was a graduate of the Iowa Writing Workshop. Kevin has many poet-readers, but I put my money on Grimes being his closest reader. Others had published novels or books of poems. After meeting Kevin at Centrum, Blue Begonia Press published Kevin's first two books. Light That Whispers Morning, Kevin's first book, won the Bumbershoot Publication Award in the competition that was judged that year by Sam Hamill.

As publisher of Kevin's first two books, I knew his poems. He had become a poet and a friend crossing time. I had read Vanish twice in manuscript during its final editing and shaping prior to publication. Writing about Kevin came to feel like responsibility and  calling as much as writing with him as colleague and friend had become fact.


Here is Kevin Miller's first book, Light That Whispers Morning. Kevin has just returned from a Fulbright Exchange program in Grena, Denmark. The cover painting, Pigen I kokkenet (1883-86) by  Anna Ancher (1859-1935), from the Hischsrprung Collection, with permission. Taking this early volume from Blue Begonia shelves is always bewildering. As each published volume in a press' history shapes both editor and writer, I always wonder what comes up with any poet when they look at their early work. Light That Whispers Morning holds a community of memories for so many of Kevin's friends. His school at the time, Gig Harbor High School celebrated that book. Champagne bottles break during a book launch. These poems read fresh thirty years later. Ring the bell.

Here is the opening poem from Light That Whispers Morning:

             Last Attempt to Heal Catherine Moran\

            Paper rips, the heart tears,      

            Steam from the kettle smells of roses.

            The biscuit moon sifts light over the meadow.

            A fall salmon loses its silver corolla.

            Memories of gold finch loop like butter

            beyond the fence while I trace you

            across china. When the petals fill this cup,

            I shall drink the thorns of your disease,

            nourish myself on changing moons and find

            a light that whispers morning to your bones.


After a day hiking to Third Burroughs on Mt. Rainier, I return to Miller's Vanish, having needed to separate from both his poems and his pathway. Here come those white shirts again. The man who claims fidelity in this book, whose 50 years of marriage approaches prior to the national election of a lifetime, the poet who carries the call like a vow, in Anniversary near book's end:

            I break the hollow bone love can be--

            my problem with fidelity always fidelity.

In the poem, Fidelity,

            whoever said, Gone to the dog,

            must have forgotten loyal…

But how did I get here? From White Shirts to Smoke and Miracles? Here, in the first poem, Chrome and Oranges, Miller drags where he's been with love across time, across decades. He rides his new bike cross town to a friend's. Handlebars rust at the bottom of a sack. Soggy sack heavy with past detritus. Why carry into love's long, loyal commitment and practice? His own?

            From a distance, you might wonder how

            one man could own so many white shirts.

I'm on my way to The Bureau of Wear and Tear, stopped by Becoming Piaget's Car. Miller is a professional educator. 30+ years in the classroom, a stint as an administrator, and back in the classroom teaching Special Education. He's playing with a toddler (grandson?--He's as much a grandfather as he is father, husband, teacher) and the toy car is under the chair. He knows child development theory, and theory and practice. Readiness.  You imagine an other side…he writes…you might have crossed over rather than under.

Here, in the bureau drawer, the familiar wear and tear of its domesticity, the wild:

            This drawer holds enough black socks

            for twenty funerals…

He prefers wearing them to weddings. Former students, family. Crossed bones rattling in a sock drawer with his superstitions. Women love reading these poems. Kevin gets it they say to themselves--and to him. I've seen this over my adult life. His friends, nod in wonder at their friend.

            This line at the post office, this checker

            at the grocery, that lane one mile from work

Senior, elder, ancestor. I'm reaching. Crossing out words banging off my ear. Reach again. Put a stake in the ground and tie it to a rope. Don't get lost in the dust storm. How to talk about the work. How to say. Early European explorers of the American Southwest, came up from Mexico, already mixed peoples, already, La Raza Cosmica, arriving on the great plain, el llano, and got lost. They put stakes in the ground roping their way north, giving it a name, el llano estacado, avoiding the hysteria of getting lost in dust storms. Place a stake in the ground for the poetry of Kevin Miller. He's up to his elbows in dishwater. He's writing poems. He's home. Been at it for decades.

Try living out your life in poems. I can do that, the famous response of a man talking to William Stafford. Try it, perhaps Stafford's edgiest reply. Miller says in the book's last poem, Smoke and Miracles, You believe in the miracles. With one small condition. He's referencing Smoky Robinson.

            …it's a twelve-step slide in honey.

I'm back from the mountains. I had to get far enough away from the poems to see the poems. Far enough away from the poet to hear him. Wonder about him--in wonder. Walking.  Everywhere is far. He's nearer again now. Even here, on the trail down from Third Burroughs, watching the family of women I'm with glissading.  There's going to be a wedding. Four young women, their mother, and the boy friend of one of the sisters, not the bride. He's young, and a poet. He left a poem on the refrigerator to his beloved given by his professor. His poem destroyed the teacher's assignment. He has written a love poem that goes beyond the beloved. What is the practice? the young man wanted to know. How is it done--in the course of a life time, over and over again? He didn't say it quite that way. His words his, not Paul Simon's. Are you going back to their house after the hike, I ask. He is. There's a book there, with a gold cover, Vanish, big white letters, by the poet Kevin Miller. The image on the cover was taken by a friend, Vance Thompson, fine photographer. Artist.

I'm trying to write an essay about the poet. This is his most recent book. I've been reading his poems as I made my own attempts at growing up.. I'm trying to write about Vanish, as well as poems, but I don't really want to write about Vanish, or his other books, for that matter. I want to write about his life as a poet and as a friend. I felt an obligation at first to write about Vanish, and asked my friend, who even knows Kevin better to write this review. It took some time to find my way in, and it wasn't about Vanish, or the poems at all. Kevin Miller and I have been writing letters since we met in the late 1980s. There are more than 400 pages of single-spaced letters. Maybe those letters are as important as the poems, or the books. And then there's this. When Kevin finishes a letter, he most often attaches a poem to it. So he's written these letters and these poems. Imagine that. The energy necessary to write a letter, as opposed to an email--and get back to your day. A letter. And then add the poem. I don't know how he does it. That's what I want to write about.

The young poet-suitor asks, Is that a kind of violation of the intimacy of a letter?

Great question, I add. That's the thing. How does one do that, breaking through to intimacy without the violation? Is the poem attached to the letter any more public than the letter is? I don't know. They're so beautiful. But how to do it. How to break down what's forbidden, or at least, what's not practiced, not conventional. How does one do it without compromising, being all-in, even if there might be a cost in the relationship. Letters are not safe either. In their writing and in their sending. A letter is forever vulnerable in its reception and being. Add this to it. In these 30 years of exchanging letters, there's the shared love of the commemorative stamp. In stamps as art.

I see that I found a way to address the issue, even if I don't take it head-on.

Back at the car, sharing Coca Colas on ice from a cooler, Mexican Coca Cola from cane sugar. I thank my young friend for his questions. You made that last mile and a half slog easier. Look for the shadows in the sunlight on the cover I said. Re-read that short statement Barry Grimes wrote at the beginning of the essay. He's writing on the inside of a book. During that workshop we met Kevin. Try and get inside that sentence. Read Vanish tonight. I'll send you the draft of the essay when I can get it done.

…During that workshop we met Kevin. All of us in there, in that one. Relationship. Cards and letters. Poems and history. Look for the light among the ghosts of the vanished:

            When the petals fill this cup,

            I shall drink the thorns of your disease,

            nourish myself on changing moons and find

            a light that whispers morning to your bones.

Jim Bodeen

August-September, 2020


Cover photo by Vance Thompson, SilverDarkness

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