As one might gather from the titles of Joseph Millar’s three volumes of poetry—Overtime (2001), Fortune (2007) and Blue Rust (2012)—he is a direct heir to the working-class likes of James Wright, B.H. Fairchild, and current U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine. But it would be reductive and unfair to call Millar simply “a working-class poet,” as though the only readers to which he could possibly appeal are those who have spent time laboring in the “real world.” Simply put, Millar is a poet who traffics in the real things of an everyday world, crafting well-spoken poems that take up the most universal themes of friends, family, hard luck, and love. And his newest book, Blue Rust, in spite of its grit, its grease, and its often mournful tone, astounds with countless moments of shimmering clarity, offering brief reprieves from a tough life eked out in the shadow of a troubled past. “Dutch Roll” finds Millar and his father ice-skating, sharing a rare, transcendent day:
He’s showing me the Dutch Roll,
how to move down the ice for long distances
as they do in the Land of Silver Skates
shifting one’s weight from foot to foot
without thrusting the legs.
This is language at its plainest, and we don’t even need to read these poems aloud to catch the music in their lines (though it helps). In the midst of such beauty, regret also threads through these memories with the knowledge of how things shift and change and how we must give up the tenuous peace that never seems to last: “French Creek will not freeze like this / for the rest of the winter we live here, / and tomorrow he’ll start drinking again.” Millar shows us the always-precarious balance life requires, but by the end, he seems uncertain just how much of the past he can ridge back, as if unsure what poetry can ever truly capture:
Maybe my father comes back for me,
and we turn and skate back upstream together
past the big rocks crusted with snow,
the ice so thick here I can’t see through it.
No matter how often Millar strikes an elegiac tone—even in some of his most playful poems—he manages to resist the ease and comfort of sentimentality. “Kiski Flats,” which memorializes his father, begins by describing “the hatchet sunk deep in the work bench he left / to die in his bed behind the closed door.” But Millar wisely decides to keep that door shut and makes a slow turn at the end to show us what the living do, left with nothing but a difficult love that seldom allows us to see clearly, much less keep things from falling apart:
We peer now into the choppy rooms,
the windows wavy with age and rain.
Let the phone ring forever, let the mail
pile up. Let the dry nest fall apart,
stuck together with last year’s mud
jammed in the eaves and shaped like a heart.
Millar draws on his work as a commercial fisherman for the long poem “Ocean,” which is a kind of nostalgic interlude between the more serious poems of the first part of the book and the humorous pieces that make up much of the third and fourth parts. The most memorable of these (unsurprisingly) is “Blow Job Cole Slaw,” and though I might quibble with the unpleasant image such a title conjures up, this poem is ultimately about how two men manage their loneliness while stranded together on a salmon boat in the Bering Sea:
. . . night coming up from the shifting depths,
its dark veils unwinding, its unbraided hair,
floating half a mile up the cutbank, we
slept in our damp socks and sweatshirts,
we opened our cramping, feverish hands.
In some ways, Blue Rust is a paean to night, that temporary refuge from the day’s steady onslaught, and Millar seems to worship “the house of sleep,” which he acknowledges none of us will ever fully own. Still, he depicts that slow ease into dreams so wonderfully, we might never see the act of falling asleep in the same way again:
Nothing to hear or see or hold onto,
blue rust floating away from your
touch, dark mosses crumbling under
your tongue, nothing to carry back . . .
Whether talking of a “meth addict 40 days clean,” a “donut shop jukebox,” or a marriage that still works after all these years (his wife is the poet Dorianne Laux), Millar keeps his finger on the pulse of the redemptive yet common and sometimes-oddball moments of a life lived to its fullest. In “Marriage,” he and his wife wander a tool shop together as she muses playfully on the best weapons and methods with which to off a husband. But once again, this poet’s infinite gratitude for the ordinary moments we’re bequeathed breaks through:
surrounded by metal, the whetstone’s
fine oil, chisels and knives,
torches and welding tanks
rinsed in blue light, threaded light,
bridal light helplessly shining . . .
Blue Rust also invokes those who have been lost, and Millar’s whole body of work up to this point aims to speak for those who might otherwise be forgotten, who’d most likely never show up in American poetry. These are the friends and family members whose time on earth—however brief—has made its indelible mark on Millar’s memory, and through the poet, these lives make their mark on ours too. “Song for Stevie” begins: “Three days now since my friend died / whom the fever had worn thin, / thinner than even the cancer / thinner than the methadone.” “Day of the Dead” finds him naming a friend “who left behind the pale flower / whose delicate roots they never could find / blooming inside his brain.” These elegies—and every other poem in this excellent, must-read book—are here to remind us over and over that loss is a cross we must all eventually bear, pausing when we can to give thanks for whatever gives us relief from that unbearable weight. Millar counsels us:
Listen to the night freight coming down,
its engines, its wheels, its sacks of ripe grain,
its gray rats grown fat by the iron tracks,
its love-moan traveling back through the rain.
If “blue rust” is what comes of leaving things too long exposed to the elements— things we haven’t touched or used or thought of in years—then Joseph Millar’s praise-filled poems scrape it away, bit by bit, to find what’s still “helplessly shining” just beneath.