Paper Sparrows (At the Museum) – JM Miller
a slip of paper no larger than a dollar
records the scale of value for a slave.
Rows of age and rows of worth, the black
body’s gains & losses over time.
You see the paper is degrading, yellowing
tree fibers from an oily thumb nearly enough
to erase the pencil’s mark.
At the next exhibit white poets
read paper sparrows to sleep —
a stiff wind in their feathers — still
love in their curated bodies of paper.
They lean in until a black fly in the bird’s eye
tires, eating away the carrion into sight,
& they see suddenly a boy,
his invisible hands raised, opening his heart
to a country refusing to remember him.
Some keep the dead alongside them,
feathers in the cap, the bittersweet blues
of fairy tales, while others open & close
the birds’ beaks to hear
the price of a spirit, the labor of a body,
a hundred dollars for each year of your life,
the value of a dead boy in the street.
I’m proud to share another round of poems from JM Miller’s collection, Wilderness Lessons (FutureCycle Press), which I did a microreview & interview of earlier this week.
This week has been tough for me. The election has left me devastated and fearful. I say this without any exaggeration, nor with any malice toward anyone. I speak primarily to share how I wake up feeling hyperaware of the color of my skin, what it might mean for my wife and I in public, and how people I love and care for from different backgrounds and communities are having to reckon with similar emotions and worries. Thank you to everyone who has reached out regarding our safety. Thank you for everyone who has shared some of their story and allowed me to carry some of the pain for them. If any of this hits home for you, please know you are not alone.
I return to the work of JM Miller this week with greater gratitude for the mixing of worlds and insights therein. In “Paper Sparrows (At the Museum),” I am moved by the way poetry can show how an abstract concept like history can be affected by “an oily thumb,” and is thus able to evoke the human pulse behind artifacts in a museum. With the metaphor of “paper sparrows,” Miller’s poem pushes against the museum narrative further, plunging into bird imagery until the reader is taken to a more contemporary moment. In a deft series of couplets, history and today’s fraught political climate are juxtaposed in a way that brings out the human element of exhibits and headlines.
This engagement with the human element is one of the many wonders of Wilderness Lessons. Miller’s poems present the world under our animal eyes in a way that reminds us what there is to value in it. I read the poem below this week and am heartened, able to recall that: It is good to be in this body, scrubbing the planet // from our hands, then reaching for more.
Equinox – JM Miller
The bus fills with apple slices of sun
on the burnt crest of equinox.
My love is at home lifting the last
golden beet from our tiny plot,
rinsing cool dirt from its roots, setting
aside its greens for dinner.
Here our bodies pinch slightly for balance
as our minds move sluggishly through time,
the hours pushing downward now, tender
rose hips wrinkling into pungent syrup
that leaves a river of stain on our fingers.
It is good to be in this body, scrubbing the planet
from our hands, then reaching for more.
The granite lid over Washington shadows in
from the southwest & we are none the worse
for loving, for losing horizon for so long.
Hunger is neither shame nor enough when
our bodies pull together in stillness.