Joseph Millar is the author of Fortune, from Eastern Washington University Press. His first collection, Overtime (2001), was finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Millar grew up in Pennsylvania, attended Johns Hopkins University and spent 25 years in the San Francisco Bay area, working at a variety of jobs, from telephone repairman to commercial fisherman. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines including TriQuarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, DoubleTake, Ploughshares, New Letters, Manoa, and River Styx. He has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in Poetry, the Moncalvo Center for the Arts, and Oregon Literary Arts. He now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, poet Dorianne Laux, both of whom are on the faculty of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. His poems are published here with his permission.
We humped the fire bricks eight steps down
into the root cellar, laid them up
with castable mortar, the drawings
in Pottery Magazine: archway, damper,
recessed firebox, fuel line fed
from a number two diesel drum
resting above in the grass. We loaded
the pots glazed with cobalt and gold,
laughing and passing a fifth
of Jim Beam. That year my drinking
would land me in jail, I’d wreck
two cars and a five-year marriage
while everywhere the gas crunch choked off
the pumps. Ford’s Pinto with its
exploding gas tank selling into the millions,
Nixon and Iacocca shaking hands on TV.
Soldiers came back from Vietnam,
raspy, thin, haunting the unemployment lines,
hitching rides under freeway bridges
smoking their monster dope in the rain.
We fired the kiln for thirty-two hours
while we drank and played cards, passed
out and slept, while the bright flame growled
and sang to itself. Until both shelves
melted and the pots all fell, broken except
for one yellow vase, shining intact
in the rubble. The new moon rose and set
like a stone over battered fields of Maryland corn,
the pond bottom’s silts, red mud of streambeds
hardened like limestone and flint.
We had nothing to sell, nothing to show,
shoveling burnt shards into the trash.
Cattle slept standing up in the pasture,
the death frost burning under their feet
and a siren began to swell in the distance,
kilos of gray ash traveling away from us:
highway ashes, ashes of flight,
ashes of worship and follow-your-bliss.
I’m fifty miles west of town,
a stranger driving this coal dust valley,
bottom land chopped into the river.
Bunch grass stabs its glittering arrows
up through the frozen gravel. I can
remember holidays like repeat episodes
of schizophrenia, furniture breaking
downstairs in the dark, everyone’s heads
bowed like hostages over the evening meal.
I’m passing close to the villages:
Avonmore, Saltsburg, Leechburg, Apollo.
Forgive me my history, I want to say
to those broken hills, the slow river,
it feels like it happened to someone else.
Forgive these ghost’s hands bringing you nothing,
this heart filled with cobwebs and rain.
All morning in the February light
he has been mending cable,
splicing the pairs of wires together
according to their colors,
white-blue to white-blue
violet-slate to violet-slate,
in the warehouse attic by the river.
When he is finished
the messages will flow along the line:
thank you for the gift,
please come to the baptism,
the bill is now past due.
We live so much of our lives
without telling anyone,
going out before dawn,
working all day by ourselves,
shaking our heads in silence
at the news on the radio.
He thinks of the many signals
flying in the air around him,
the syllables fluttering,
saying please love me,
from continent to continent
over the curve of the earth.
NEAR THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE
I said goodbye to my father in a black Oldsmobile,
unwilling to park and linger, waiting for the flight
to Pittsburgh. It was August, almost time
for his classes, and the mountain sky was clear
over Denver as I herded the big car down
through the switchbacks, leaving the airport behind.
That night I camped by a stream in the foothills
named for a saint I’d never heard of.
I don’t think he’d planned on dying any time soon,
stumping through the terminal doors in moccasins
and shorts, the end of a dead cigarette in his teeth.
He’d insulted my poems as usual,
eaten his pork chops and eggs, leering
at the waitress when she brought the Bloody Marys.
Before he got out of the car he’d stuffed two fifties
into the ashtray and told me to keep firing.
When I was twelve I didn’t want to be President
or King of England. I didn’t want to be in movies
like my children do, lying dazed in the TV’s astral glow
listening to the guitars. I wanted hair on my arms
and big shoulders. I wanted to be a man like him,
draped in mystery. A cigar and a hat flecked with rain
singing, “If I Loved You” on the way to work, or leaning
against the Turb Club bar, relaxed and elegant,
the Racing Form in one hand and a whisky in the other,
gazing down at the horses and sighing, “Christ, Mac,
would you look at the wanton splendor of it all.”
That night in the Rockies, jumpy from five days
of drinking, I couldn’t sleep, listening to the darkness.
I wanted to tell him about the wild mustangs
at Pyramid Lake, the Northern Lights crackling across
the Yukon, ask if he thought they might be angels,
ask if it hurt him that I never came home.
My father was six miles above the earth,
Melville’s Typee in his lap, wedged into an aisle seat
and calling for another gin, the lights winking on
across the wing: red, right, returning,
and his hat pulled low
over the yoked forebones of his skull.
The next day I would drive west through deep canyons
into the splintered light of Utah,
electric dust rising from cracked blue hills
where nobody knew my name,.
Whatever it was he gave me, in the early years
after my mother died,
that fierce kindness I’d required
to believe in the world’s sudden reckonings,
was mine now. In a few months
he’d be gone.
Reagan would be President
and I’d be struggling, bankrupt, divorced.
But that night the stars came down close to the road
like the eyes of the coyote
as I cut across Nevada,
remembering how we collapsed in the snow
when the Steelers lost the title,
and laughing to myself through the darkness
all the way back to the coast.