Blue Rust by Joseph Millar
You got to love the introductory quotes by Roethke, Neruda, and Neil Young. It is a joy when a book starts out with little gems that make you pause and ponder and you haven’t read a single poem yet.
I think the title of the book sets the tone: Blue Rust, to me being blue, somewhat downcast and soulful while slowly, very slowly falling apart, decaying. So slow, as a matter of fact, that you can observe the dying around you, inside you and write about it.
And so, many of Millar’s poems deal with misery or death or loss of a friend, of innocence, of a son, or consciousness as we are drifting off to sleep.
Peppered throughout the book are a few upbeat poems, e.g., ‘Lorca in California’(one of my favorites), ‘Marriage’. But even here the tone of the poem is more observant than exuberant. As if the poet wants us to know nothing is going to last. The last four lines of ‘Lorca in California’ close out a contemplation of why Lorca would be tired of Spain and love California, where he has a new lover who works on a tuna boat…
“he comes home smelling of old rope
and anchovies, money in both his front pockets,
shiny blue scales on his boots.”
I like how Millar pulled the ‘blue’ theme through the first chapter of the book with unusual phrases like ‘blue void of Sunday’ (in Ode to the Ear), ‘blue dust of space’ (in Year of the Ox) , and ‘blue rust floating away’ (in Nightbound). I would have liked to see that continued throughout the remaining chapters.
What I admire about Millar’s poetry – and why I will pick up this book again and again – is his down-to-earth language in masterfully crafted lines. David Riggsby, a fellow North Carolina poet, once advised in a poetry workshop to take the best line of your poem and aim to craft all other lines in the same radiance. I feel Millar does this in every poem. All lines by themselves tend to carry their own weight, are interesting, move the reader forward. Take ‘Stove’ (a wonderful poem), I am picking random lines from the poem:
“my father wrapped both legs around”
“and he’d sit in a tepid slurry for hours”
“nursing the whiskey’s measure of pain”
“the fins of his dream have carried him”
“its metal voice blistered with fallen stars”
Don’t they want to make you read these lines over and over, soak up the language, the imagery?
A fascinating poem, to me, is ‘Labor Day’ – 14 lines of poetry and nothing happens. Nothing. The poem describes how on Labor Day nothing stirs at the wharf. Yet, you cannot stop reading. The poem equals a pair of eyes very slowly scanning the silent, idle scene and conveying what it doesn’t see, ending in the gentle lulling of tuna boats in the water. Wonderfully soothing and calming.
Millar is a true believer in Stanley Kunitz’s advice to end a poem on an image and not explain it. In that tradition, the poet allows the reader to listen to the echo of emotions just stirred by the poem.
If I had to highlight one point of constructive criticism, it would be the lack of variety in craft. The book is dominated by one writing style. I would like to read some poems in Millar’s voice written in different forms and techniques.
What do you think? Did you like the book?
Did the poems speak to you? Did you like the language and music of Millar’s poems?
Please share your thoughts.