I’m aware this “review” could potentially end up as flat out extolment for a poet who has become my friend and whose poems I was fortunate enough to have read in their early drafts. Am I biased? Probably. But I am going to make an effort to evidence what makes this a worthy read. There is plenty to evidence and I hope in tandem with my personal praise, this review will not be exposed as a sycophantic exposition.
Tim Miller’s Bone Antler Stone (The High Window Press) begins, ablaze, with the poem Fire Houses. What seems to have been an ancient procedure of renewal (Tim’s query in Fire Houses II later on: “Why would they do this to their houses/every generation of so…?” for me, supports this, in a whole poem dedicated to the question) seems to be Tim’s symbolic way of nudging us toward a spirit of renewed perception toward a remote past. His poems, allured by histories blank spots and maybe even blind corners, act as the “great liminal space” to gather renovated insight into the ancient cultures of Europe.
In the central verse of the poem, Tim mistakes “electric light sprawling from a TV…” for one of the fire houses, a poet after a vision that peers into the past; a poet we can trust to present for us the intensity of a time, at least to the average person, little reckoned with. The “Otherworld” remarked on, could be the subject itself, so distant, so bare of the essential ingredients abundant evidence gives us to dramatize history. Without this, does the subject become Otherworldly, a time difficult for us to form a relationship with, in which to see our likenesses? Tim’s poem bridge those difficulties. He brings that cradle of humanity closer.
These are not poems of blood and disaster; nor poems fueled with lusts and sabotage; but poems of small detail, beacons of light drawing us to the achievements of cultures without convenience, to marvel and respect the enduring legacy, hacked into artifice, extant in the material of bone, antler and stone.
Bone Antler Stone is dutifully constructed around the linear passage of time, 30 or more thousand years of it; covering the upper Paleolithic, through the stone age, bronze & into the early centuries of the 1st millennium. The book, separated into 4 sections: Landscape & Rituals; Burials; Artifacts and ending in a finale at Orkney. Each section moving from inception or remotest time, to a time closer (yet still remarkably remote). Or perhaps better thought of as, from less civilized to more civilized.
After the introductory Fire Houses we are transported to what preceded the civilized shelter of the home, caves— the caves of Chauvet, Lascaux & Altamira, 30,000 years ago. This series opens with one of my favourite lines:
“Now we come to paint with light and fire.”
A line dramatically dense, suggestive, alive.
The first poem utilizing an expansive line that reaches like the cave-dwellers fire to the ceiling of their cave, offering the inhabitants the means to decorate their stony, womb like domicile; their umbilical art fastening onto the mental duty of mankind to identify itself with their environment—a pattern thread through time. The remaining 6 poems shuttle and pounce, incisive like the actions and behavior of not only the artist’s hand, but the fluidity of the creatures they made likenesses of. Tim fills the poems with much of what these troglodytes identified with, what they held dear, the life bringing principles they were inextricably twined with, in addition, their fears: to be forgotten, a lonely but brief and easily forgotten spark in the depth of geological and cosmic time. Here in the poems, techniques they used:
“And to this light I mix my colors with cave water.”
Tim, makes spectators of us, we close our eyes for the mental image his words hack into us with the rib of an animal whose bones were picked clean by man and vulture.
Migrations at the End of the Ice Age & New Families Arrive in Britain seem to remark on the current refugee crisis:
You would have watched them, weary at how they
all kept coming, and their courage to
give the tide their lot…(New Families Arrive in Britain)
This is similar in tone to correspondence, the reporter on the scene. I see paired to those ancient people landing in 5000BC, the hopeful refugees escaping the impact of wars, even the effects of glacially slow climate change, in our own time. These poems could be prescient of a future, in which large swathes of the globe are uninhabitable and similar migrations are repeated. Maybe, we’ll consider as Tim does in Migrations at the End of the Ice Age:
I like to think about it this way: that the
ice sheets of ancients Europe, rather than
melting and making a run to the north
simply because the weather got warmer,
instead retreated, were sought out and stalked,
harried and run down by animals, plants
and human tribes living off the new…
Such hopefulness may be welcomed after so much hardship.
The movement of large bodies of people, all their belongings, hope in the continuity of identity and identification which they (like us) we might suppose, longed to keep alive, becoming the common will of mankind. It isn’t new, yet it is always done in search of something new; there is familiarity in “the new”.
How have we changed? Have we, at least in many respects not remained akin to the peoples of history, if only because we share the fragilities that make us human and regardless all our conveniences, removed, they bring our similarities into focus: flesh, blood, bone, hunger, necessity of warmth, shelter and so, eager to mark materials in pigments and dyes, to sculpt a legacy out of material to scream “we were here”, bearing our teeth with ritual verve to the elements that drench us cold or bake us, but which, attuned to, provide for us, not just our sustenance but our principles of order, moral compass— gods.
The Village of Gönnersdorf provides us with a window into the habitual, annual, cyclical movements of peoples:
They returned every winter to find things
mostly as they had left them: the slate floors
needed cleaning so the animals engraved
there stood out again in the dust of their feet.
This life of domestic repetition, continual repair, continually keeping their heads above the waters of hardship, is never romanticized by Tim; never praised as a freer time, closer to nature— a mythologized, golden age of man. Nor does he stress the hardship; rather the poems act as documentation, they show and provide evidence.
Tim’s poems are for everyone, learned in their research; the only difficulties to surmount are names unfamiliar to us. You may not understand the meaningful weight of Dolní Věstonice, or Tim’s interesting choices for his Gods & Goddesses sub-section, where rather than Bacchus or Dionysus, we meet Sucellus. This is not done in boast, but as encouragement to investigate further. I myself didn’t know a great deal, but it wasn’t difficult to find out and the discovery has been beneficial.
The language Tim uses helps connect the reader, this is not over embellished poeticizing, but tight, practical language for presentation. Regardless, it is musical, it isn’t boring to read. I realized after reading Tim’s poems more and more that Tim is like a contemporary Wordsworth. When I expressed this realization to him, he was very pleased, as this was his intention. However, he doesn’t fall into the trap of treating ancient subjects with a pseudo-antique idiom; these are clearly contemporary poems, from a poet aware he is not trying to write from the perspective of the peoples who lived the time of his subject. The tone is not affected in the transportation of the researched subject matter, into verse, either. Miller’s research speaks volumes through the pointedness of his language. Tim, never speaks from the point of view of the civilization in any sort of poor re-enacting of their character, aside from the end where Pytheas appears, but even he is contemporized and the effect is charming. This could easily appear like those dreadful voice actors from the BBC, who in English read a translation of a Roman Emperor’s speech; ok we get the gist, we get the insight, but it feel affected, at least to me. Tim is rather a poet looking, trying to understand. It could easily all blow up in Tim’s face and our enjoyment would be lessened, as we’d be removed from our considering by the attempt at dramatization. This is a very clever evasion and I applaud Tim for it.
Returning to music in these poems, it is ubiquitous in my opinion. A fine example comes through in Ajvide Girl:
The hedgehog covered her:
its spiked skin capped her head,
and around her neck there hung
some fine clattering jaw…
The language tough as the leathery bog bodies. The velar stop of the ‘k’ making the image of the hedgehog sonically robust. The placement of the dactylic clattering satisfies visually and sonically, piquing our senses. It’s remarkably well crafted, carefully constructive poetry, yet there is buoyancy, which I feel comes with good training; it isn’t meticulous in a clinical way, it feels confidant, well honed. The sibilance and fricative consonants sweep the lines along, like a tool for shaving rock, or a broom for sweeping floors.
In the final Orkney section, Tim’s own character comes to the fore. We meet the poet, smelting into his themes as he visits the landmarks on Orkney. Here, the balance of history’s documentation is balanced with a personality and yet he seems no more or less real than the people of his histories.
Accompanying Tim is Pytheas, the Greek geographer. Tim becomes Pytheas via a text on Pytheas, which Tim has on him, in Orkney. They embody each other, both “in energetic middle age” maybe even “young enough to be stupid” and hopefully “seasoned enough to make it…” It is a lovely touch. You have two middle aged men, a long way from home, potentially looking for something similar: vestiges of the past, remote cultures, a meaning to life, lineage, history, process. Human connections that give life purpose. And that is what we find in Orkney.
The Orkney section is a condensed, aerial, intimate tour of the islands by Tim and his wife Jenny There is even a map, so as you can orient yourself as you move through the poem.
It is full of small details: buying cereal and milk for example; both objects associated with fertility; the contemporary pleached with the antique landscape and vice versa.
If like me, you’d never considered Orkney as a travel destination, that’ll certainly change after reading Bone Antler Stone. Coming from the UK but living in Korea, I now daydream when I can make what I now see as a pilgrimage, to those islands. Tim’s poems tucked into my bag, eager to visit the places Tim visited, except, opening up Bone Antler Stone to read aloud Tim’s poems on say The Ring of Brodgar or Skara Brae, or while walking round Magnus Cathedral and hearing them aloud, where they are most at home. Picturing the nervous Tim at the summit of Magnus Cathedral, encouraged by Jenny to make the summit even if the height makes him anxious, which I am glad he did, otherwise he may not have written
…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.
That human connection between two people a microcosm of the connection between culture and history, people and identity, people and people who make history— identity triumphs in the face of overwhelming odds.
The end of Bone Antler Stone brings all your humanity home to you, in a profound passage that is just astonishing. Tim talks with Pytheas aboard the plane as they jet home. Pytheas’ final reply
assuring me that for us, and for ours,
there was only the odd look, the old look, the awed look,
but rarely the real look of revelation,
or the consolation of having communicated.
And so the motive was to make meaning and memory
a kind of barrow burial in bloom
a garlanded grave undergroun
forged with turf and stone and fire and then forgotten,
until a propitious step or a sudden storm
blows open this book’s binding
and lays each line out in the light again,
shells of syllables dotting the sand.
To be summoned by someone is always a surprise, he said,
and someday I would feel a spade on my skull
someday I would stand up and start singing,
but until then I should love the loneliness and its lessons,
and he bade me to build it well, to bury it well, and wait. (The Wanderer II—Flight from Orkney)
History, might well be a motif of coincidences, it might follow a regulated trajectory based on the deliberation of previous actions and roles. But something I took from Bone Antler Stone, is that whether the evidence of human behavior is there and no matter how it got there, it is really up to us to uncover the voice of that generation again and even if we get that voice wrong, we’ll never know anyway and it offers up a better hope of some form of immortality to think that a distant culture, may endeavor to think about us, to offer its time to us as we offer time to the generations we rediscover through literature and art. To consider how we lived, thought, behaved and struggled to forge identities out of the happenstance environment shifting not just geologically but culturally after any series of events, over extended time. I’d rather think of the spade or pick striking my skull and human hands, lifting it into sunlight after a millennia, to interrogate the code held in it and determine something human about me, than to end up in some paradise with a despotic God demanding genuflection. We all inevitably depart, are forgotten. But there’s always a chance in the peculiar, fluke of life and snafu of death that so long as a relic from our having existed, survives to hint at the culture we belonged to, so as conjecture can be made as to our identity, it is possible that we can be gone a long time, but also, rediscovery hovers above us in the form of a curious metal detector.
That’s history I suppose. You never know what will be found and that which is found is only rediscovered, it has had its time and in its rediscovery it becomes an object of adoration again, a reminder.
I hope Tim’s book of poems is not forgotten in a hurry. If that should be its fate, I hope someone rediscovers it again, receiving as much enjoyment as I did.
You can buy a copy of Bone Antler Stone, signed by Tim, as well as download readings, or read an essay about the book by following this link.
This is my first review of a poetry book and I’d like to do more, so if you like what you read and would like me to review your chapbook and post that review on my blog, contact me at email@example.com.