Jul/Aug 2005 Book Reviews

With Joaquin Miller for a Muse

Cabin Fever: Poets at Joaquin Miller's Cabin, 1984-2001
Eds. Jacklyn W. Potter, Dwaine Rieves, and Gary Stein
Word Works, Inc (2003) 240 pages
ISBN 0-915380-51-X

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Cincinnatus "Nat" Miller (1837-1913 ) was an unusually colorful character even for the old west. During his long life he was a gold miner, a cowhand and horse thief, an otherwise felon and fugitive, a cook, a lawyer, a schoolteacher, a Pony Express rider, a newspaper reporter and editor, a judge, a poet, a journalist for national circulation magazines and more besides. During the years leading up to the Civil War he was virulently pro-slavery. During the years after, he wrote accolades for John Brown. He appears to have fought with the settlers and the Indians—on both sides in a number of minor skirmishes between the two—but the details are vague and his own recollections were famously creative. As much as anything, he was an opportunist and a teller of tall tales.

In 1870, Miller left the United States for London, England. Europe was fascinated by cowboys and Indians and he was a hit. He dressed in garish colors and exaggerated western fashion and presented a card that read: "Joaquin Miller: Byron of the Rockies." (He had adopted the name from Joaquin Murieta, thinking it a better name for a poet than "Cincinnatus.") He dined with Anthony Trollop, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, among others, and strew rose petals at the feet of Lily Langtry. (Bierce is said to have called him "The greatest liar this country has ever produced.") His poetry was touted by the finest English poets as exemplary of western naivete.

In 1883, Miller bought a piece of property near Washington, D.C., and built a cabin. Three years later, he lost a considerable sum in the stock market and sold it in order to recover some of his losses. That cabin is now maintained by the National Park Service and is the site of an annual series of readings associated with the regional poetry powerhouse Word Works, Inc.

Cabin Fever: Poets at Joaquin Miller's Cabin, 1984-2001 is an anthology of pieces selected from those readings. The readings sometimes feature better known poets such as Stanley Plumly, Lucille Clifton, Grace Cavalieri, Lola Haskins, and Reed Whittemore, all of whom have contributed one or more poems to the anthology. But generally they feature poets from the greater D.C. area, some with names recognizable by virtue of Word Works' tireless publishing efforts and some with an entirely regional audience.

Regional poetry, in these neo-Populist times, is not ill represented by Joaquin Miller. Many of the thousands of open-mic affairs that occur every month throughout the U.S. are attended by a population that would be quite at home with the old charlatan with his sombrero and polka dot bandana. The idea of readings at the Miller Cabin is delightfully on target.

But Miller also managed to write some worthy poems (given a little editing for grammar and spelling) and it is this that is more to the point here. A surprising number of the featured poets from whose readings the poems of Cabin Fever have been selected are represented by an exceptional poem or two, and, by the "where there's smoke" rule, the fact is suggestive. By virtue of a remarkable support structure, available to them as greater D.C. residents, the poets have found their audience. Many have published books within that structure. All have been provided the opportunity of featured readings at the cabin and elsewhere. As a result, they have come, it is clear, to expect more of themselves.

The swagger of their muse remains. The best known poem in Cabin Fever is Lucille Clifton's "homage to my hips":

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips

The poem is representative of a type that might, more or less exactly, be called the Maya Angelou genre. The poem is so representative, in fact, that it might better be called the "big hips" genre of poetry.

Less strident and less well-known poets prevail on the whole. The range of subjects and styles is wide. Dora Malech, for example, writes of a missing child, in the poem "Statistic":

The pillowcase still smells blue
and clean like her hair

It is the kind of detail that leaves us all bereft of a child for a heart-rending moment; that draws a reader back again and again like a moth to a flame.

In the delightfully self-referential prose poem "February: Arlington," David McAleavy takes a moment to consider less harrowing aspects of love:

All acts of love, maybe, are this way, genuine even when self-serving or short-sighted, hyphenated-and-qualified, and like the valentines left here and there, sometimes on purpose to be found, sometimes negligently abandoned, are both familiar and strange.

Here the daily reality of love, its details spared the sundering terrors of loss, finds its own "hyphenated-and-qualified" pathos.

While love and death, gain and loss, companionship and loneliness, the great themes of our lives, are found in Cabin Fever in necessary abundance, they take a myriad of forms. In Greg McBride's concrete poem "Spooning" the form is physical. The poem belongs in every collection of curiously wrought spoons.

Washington is paid back for its hospitality by being present in so many poems. Cherry blossoms are more than normally in evidence. But what little politics seeps in seems to be held at bay in Dublin and Syria and Peru where death hovers above the vulnerable like a carrion bird. Landscapes closer to home, from Alabama to Alaska, are populated with junk computer parts, duct tape, Ryder trucks and afternoons stolen away from household chores in order to write a poem, which, like the poems that have found their way into this anthology will sometimes be exceptional and always human.

The poets of Cabin Fever offer us a wide range of life and style. The editors have done their work well. Gathered within its card-stock covers is a well-selected melange of poems and of photographs from some seventeen years of readings—and perhaps even a Byron of Washington, D.C., or two.


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