- Blue Rust
Joseph Millar speaks with fierce compassion and the authority of hard-won experience. In his remarkable third collection, Blue Rust, he lays down “the shield of irony” without taking up the consolations of easy sentiment or posturing despair. The result is an unstrained originality: lyrics that avoid the metronome, leaps of imagination in which the associative logic never trails off into self-indulgent incoherence. Joe Millar looks hard at a world that is doomed and beautiful. What sets Blue Rust apart is his ability to honor both those terms.
The book’s expansive arc—opening with “Nativity” and ending with “The Day of the Dead”—suggests something of Millar’s fearless and omnivorous imagination. No subjects are off limits. He begins in the “birth blood” of his own delivery, an “insatiable mammal” aware that his mother [End Page 174] “loved me and hated me / through those early months.” “I saw . . . I heard . . . I wanted” he intones, in the manner of Whitman, but the poem ends on an ominous note, not an ecstatic one—a lyric less of arrival than of farewell. His unholy, unprosperous family is on the road—but the movement is not west into expanding possibility, rather back through the rust belt of a land where freedom and innocence have been sundered by the threat of nuclear war:
In August the Japanese surrendered and [my father] mustered out in Wisconsin. We headed east in a ’38 Studebaker, its big engine swallowing the miles of America, wheat fields and highway, Chicago and Cleveland and they named me So Long It’s Been Good To Know You.”
If he can’t with Whitman sing the praises of progress and technology (no “Passage to India” here), Millar retains an eye for the damaged beauty of individuals, communities, and machines. In the sonnet-like Donut Shop Jukebox, he conjures a poem of redemption and rebirth out of what may be the most unpromising materials ever assembled. Crystal meth, junk food, ditch water, a dead battery, jumper cables, noxious weeds, people late for work—these details coexist with a sudden irrepressible sense of joy:
I like the engine roaring to life, a savage red dogwood shedding its flowers over the sidewalk, over the fence. I like your hat with its purple feather, cheap as a melody, cheap as a wish.
This kind of unexpected turn occurs again and again in Blue Rust. At once a child of the sixties and working man, Millar casts a cold but compassionate eye on the platitudes of both the hippie and the hardhat. In his remarkable “Ginsberg,” for example, he moves easily among the peace demonstrators without sentimentalizing the mob mentality of the “huge angry crowds.” Millar’s Ginsberg sounds his “guttural aum” across the White House lawn, but when the speeches end, he also tells the unruly protesters “to pick up their trash.” This is the distinctive Millar touch, refusing to simplify, always working, in Martin Amis’s phrase, “against cliché.” How many poets could present Ginsberg as a voice of order, without distorting his essential spirit, or expose the naiveté and violent potential of the peace protestors, without deriding the ideals they profess? “When the sun went down / the trouble started,” he tells us:
Someone set fire to a squad car outside and we roamed the streets half drunk with the night air and the moon overhead which we thought we could swallow, its pale rocks and electric dust, [End Page 175]
the shadowy lakes on its dark side, though it was daylight in Vietnam, land of rice paddies and ancient poetry, land of the lotus pond hidden from sight, its presence so hard to know.
Unlike the second and third books of many writers, Millar’s work has grown progressively stronger, the emotional range wider; the risks more dangerous and heartfelt; the eye for beauty more encompassing, haunted, and nuanced; the convictions more troubled; the forms more varied (here more experimental, there more traditional); the self-exposures more revealing, the poems more compassionate, uplifting, and assured even (paradoxically) as they offer us less and less in the way of...