person Tim Miller, three poems

Tim Miller is a poet whose work has appeared in Crannog, Londongrip, The High Window, Poethead, Cider Press Review, Cumberland River Review, The Basil O’Flaherty, Albatross, The Journal (Wales), and others. His full collection of poems from prehistoric Europe, Bone Antler Stone, will be published in 2018 by the High Window Press. He writes about poetry and history at, and edits the poetry blog Underfoot Poetry.


The Brough of Birsay (Orkney)

Down the car park steps, down to the white beach,
down to the black clumps of sea-weed stuck up
through the sand like hair from a buried head –
heavy, flattened, green-brown leaves glistening
above some submerged and dreaming sand-filled head.

With mainland behind, Point of Snusan left,
scraggle of sea-road right and then straight North Sea
and the two of us caught between in the Sound
on the perpetually wet causeway,
the tide calm but always calmly coming.

Water shredded slightly, lightly rippled,
water terraced and layered by hard wind
and the slow assurance of certain tide,
whole forests of silken tangle swaying
to the pulse of algae, moss, and immersion.

Shelves of rock, tiered roadway into the sea
terminating not long after we’d left
into undertide, into simple surf,
simple sea-floor and abundance and deep,
and coated over with sheet and wave and song.

There are only doors here, on the Brough,
the glazed windows are all in the grass,
bits of glass that once let you look out –

now only doors, now only entrances,
now only perpetual exposure,
no exit or escape from the wind,

my feet on gravel and sand silenced
by the unending complaint of air,
and the weakening cliff glancing down on

the great scarred shelf naked under sun,
looking like farmland carved and rutted
by rolling knives and great bladed wheels.

And I sat in one of those houses,
one of those houses without windows,
those lone houses now barely foundations:

I sat where there were no longer walls
and imagined opening the door
of morning to that cold, to that howl,

those scythes of white cloud over the blue,
the blue which rushes behind the wind
and steals the cliff-edge year to year,
Pictish houses already vanished
down the old throat and whirlpool of ruin,
the Norse houses we wandered nearly there –

and the devoured walls barely to my knees
all weathered but somehow unweary
and standing as any standing stones,

the strangeness of the Scottish flag there
incongruous to the sea-facing streets,
the smithy, the sauna, the paved hearth,

the warmth and steel of generations:
lives unlike ours, lives of basic green and
brown, slow but lacking relaxation

on the edge of hunger and safety,
this slope by the sea far from leisure
and far from want in its brutal need.

Beside the Brough of Birsay white birds float
only a few feet from the cliff, to blue.
Wings wide, they hover as if on a string
until I see they’re poised at the wind, strong,
as unable to advance as be defeated,
hanging still a hundred feet above the sea
until they turn, tilt into the current
and ride the air clear to the horizon.


St. Magnus Cathedral (Orkney)

In the sandstone walls of St. Magnus
are many migrations, many raids
and inroads and many an exodus,
many a generation spilling landless
out of the over-crowded north, farmless
and without wealth – or just caught up in youth
and ambition – with neighbors near and far
now the only ones to pay these debts.
Down from Denmark and Sweden and Norway
to Lindisfarne and Lisbon and into
the Mediterranean, or down
the eastern rivers to Constantinople,
down Volga and Dneiper to the Black Sea
either plundering monasteries or
hanged themselves and dangling from Moorish palm-trees
or sacking cities Abassid and Khazar,
everywhere their runes scratched into stone
or marble, befriending or destroying
Magyar or Bulgar or Muslim, Christian
east or Christian west, Saxon or Irish or Frank,
cities and villages and rivers all
still bearing the mark of their language and
the density and spread of occupation now
become habitation, winter camp to permanence,
centuries from seafaring to settlement,
from pagan to pragmatic convert
still with Thor’s hammer beside it a cross,
not fifty years separating the hanging
of hundreds of Frankish soldiers and the
plundering of Paris on Easter Sunday
to the establishment of Normandy
or the discovery and bare taming
of Iceland’s volcanic impossible landscape,
ocean experts of cloud cover and bird flight
and the suggestion of more land far distant,
family and history everything to them
in later saga, biography and song.
          All this in the red-yellow walls of Magnus.
And of course the namesake’s hallowed bones did not
do away with feud and betrayal,
but there is no need for the linguist or
archaeologist in a place never
buried and which has lived fully since its start:
the huge barrels of red sandstone pillars
blotched a seemingly fire-stained smoky brown
and still bearing the signatures of their making:
mason’s marks of crows’ feet, calipers or ploughs,
all the slightest lines but the farthest eyes
in the place, a hand brushed over these cuts sent
back to the time of the columns going up.
Or at waist level there are iron rings
bolted like brown eyes into the pillars,
a place for tethering horses unused
now except in imagining their feet
impatient on the floor and preferring
the bay or the roads or the stonewalled fields
or the standing stones and their own church of wind.
Or how leaning against every wall were
stones a few hundred rather than a thousand
years old, commemorating medieval dead
with hourglass and shovel and Latin,
with carved petals and the vault of heaven,
with a crown and clutching hand in the clouds,
with winged faces and the kneeling dead all
beside the words that they lived regarded
and died regretted, and are here today
with coat of arms and a kind of friendship
with death, stone poems and epitaphs to him
clustered about with oars and with bells
or grapevines climbing the columns or birds
carved atop a carved roof with another
hourglass and a bundle of fruit to
remember that refrain, Mememto Mori,
remember death while you live so the living
might remember you when you are dead.
          And you remember how we put our hands
to each word or shape in thick relief,
curve of letter or flower like bodies,
like some braille into history from
Viking raids to World War Two, from lost at sea
to long voyages Asia or Antarctica.
And so we said aloud the names we found:
John and Elspeth and Barbara and Brown,
and William and Evelyn and Arthur and Muir
all resurrected and taken home with us
and haunting us still, haggling and sleepless
until I finish these poems,
feeding as they do off our reverence.
          All of it and all of them were here
well before we came and would remain
whether we stayed or left or never returned,
yellow and red sandstone not something built
but something rough and dug up, something far north
or simply self-generated, rising
on its own to better view bay and city and sea.
And the stone heads looking down from the nave,
Green Man with face gorged on leaf and growth
and the Sheila-na-gigg grimacing and
rudely holding herself open or just giving
some mysterious invitation
we would never comprehend or exhaust.
Or hidden away high up in the clerestory
above the aisle of hour-glass graveslabs
there was a thin window of colored glass,
and our tour to the top was colored light:
unused stain glass leaning out of light boxes,
red stone made blue from the midday rose window
and the lamps looking down the long nave
from above, and the bulbs strung along the
narrow passageways veining throughout
and spinning up the spiral staircases:
along the spine and through every limb was
white light, grey light, afternoon overcast,
and out on the parapet was skyless light,
cloud light, sea light, bay light, and a hundred
feet above the churchyard grass, a bright dead light –
and the light of one afraid of heights, beaming
at such a height in the air, to be there with you.


When On High, When I Also Saw the Deep

I. When I also saw the deep
From earliest days I dug in the ground
with no need for gloves, with a love of mud
in my fingernails and filling the lines
of my palms, the smack of sloppy wet earth
and the heave of heavy tough clay brought up,
the shovel slicing a smile and vast maw
into the edge of the backyard, by the woods.

I caught bees in a bottle and shook them,
throwing them dazed like dice onto the ground
and watched them crawl the smallest detail of
the driveway, down where the ants dwell with their
heavy lifting, down where the annoying weeds
peek out, these flightless bees stumbling and drunk
where they do not belong, so near the deep.

A bike ride through the woods over ramps of
bulging tree roots, the ground strewn with bottle
shards and torn or burnt magazine pages,
a menagerie of garbage amid
acorns and last year’s leaves and somebody’s
steaming sodden pile of grass clippings wet
from just sitting there and slowly sinking
back into the ground like some lazy seeping
compost of roots, and all fed by the rain
and flattened by my own tire tread, by
my own shoe print, by my own flattened palm
smooshing branch and leaf and bud down into
the deep mud flooded with seed and darkness.

II. When on high
I leapt from the old fireplace in flight,
weird old furnace where to burn the fall leaves
which for me was merely near the big tree
and the weeping branch I held to and swung
only to kick off the trunk and tumble down.

The old piss-stained gutter on Lake Erie,
the old Municipal Stadium where
I could sit near field level with my glove
and, since games were so sparsely attended,
point high to the seat furthest away, toward
the upper deck and in the far corner
of the huge old horse-shoe, and a friend would
run there, could be watched as he receded
further and further away, turning to
wave as he went, some friend of familiar
face and voice and jokes a distant
blotch high up where no home runs ever went.

Through my room I sat in the attic’s height
above the retreating streets and far fields,
a spy upon all their sloping rooftops
or, turned away from the window, I hid
in The Timetables of History or
in further boxes of other books or
I glanced into the farthest garret corners
that never saw curious eyes but my own.
Those second-floor winter mornings at school,
everyone else far down below but me,
on high and with a view over pavement
and field and seemingly the whole city
back to the vanishing haze of suburban
streets meeting the grey winter light’s horizon
and further on the steel lake of more snow.
So content was I stationed on that height
leaning over the old radiator
and letting it blow and billow out my sleeves.

III. When on high, when I also saw the deep
There were other, stranger depths:
the hidden children in the oak trees;
strange men dancing from treetop to treetop,
nimble soles balanced on edge of sky and trunk;
forest monster beyond the chain-link fence,
red eyes and body of the oldest mud;
a sense of going back before there were names,
and the child’s imperative to creation:
blank rock, blank trees, blank sky and animal,
blank rain and blank long winter made vivid
and made a part of imagination and
memory through the toddler’s incantation
and the child’s original calling,
the truly old stories of bull and beast
and travelling the tunnel of the sun
and being tricked by the serpent with words,
and the wish to live in the wild forever
sharing with the animals a single spring,
the spell only broken later by love.
Nightmares of a body broken in two
and a piece pushed up to become the sky
and the rest laid down and splayed for the earth,
other bits placed up for stars and the rest
for mountains and the insides for oceans,
the body of some huge someone everywhere,
and everywhere both alive and a grave,
word and silence, long time and memory.

In church was the emaciated Christ,
no loving Jesus but a broken Christ,
dead meat on the rack under high floodlights,
ribs and hollow stomach not seen again till
photos of Andersonville and Auschwitz,
this the one that was my every Sunday guest.
But of course he came to be hanged on high
so that he might overcome the deep and
rise out of it as revivified clay,
remade body of soggy leaves and mown grass,
redone body of summer mud frozen
and thawed and squelching under the rain again,
nailed hands and feet and crowned face full of thorns
a blooming bush from high rain and roots below
hollowed belly now color and growth, the
ribcage a cornucopia of life
Young heresy, what a high from that low,
from that honey for my eyes and for my lips
I could suggest with my own bent shovel
cleaving the head of earth and its hair of grass
to bury a bottle and a newspaper
and dig ever-giving time up again
after a season of meaningful sweetness.

13 thoughts on “person Tim Miller, three poems

  1. Pingback: 1 – ISACOUSTIC*

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