Five Poems

Brenda Miller


as in burned at
for heresy or misunderstanding—

martyrdom or taken
in error, mistaken

for witch
or saint,

flames a punishment
or cleansing,

depending on where you stand.
Flint or flesh,

kindling or heartwood
(the heart is the last to burn)—

or to stake, like a tent
in a storm,

rain shield flapping,
but some winds won’t stop

no matter how hard
you pound

in your pegs,
nowhere to gain purchase.

Remember that time
you camped alone in the wilderness

raven screaming from the cliff,

sun, starving to have a vision?
You could have blown away

easily as a bit of litter,
but something kept you

bound to earth.
What’s at stake

meaning what have you placed
on your pyre,

what are you willing
to burn
to ash?


Stop interrupting! he said
more than once,

children so full of words
we couldn’t help

it, couldn’t help
ourselves. Near the end

we had to wait

for him to get the words
out, not barge in

before he was finished.
He loved waterfalls,

did you know that?
Small or large,

famous or not,
trekked up dirt paths

to perch on the edge
and watch water

surrender to gravity’s
pull. He leaned

on rails, bridges, mist
brushing his face,

no words,
we couldn’t have heard

them anyway.
Waterfalls, they say,

pummel the air full
of negative ions, which

(it’s a paradox)
charge positive, an element

that makes you feel better,
more alive. Last time,

in Canada, at Bridal Veil
Falls, he couldn’t make it

to the top, needed
to stay creekside

and watch water
trickle over stones,

the aftermath of so much
power, so much

falling in the distance.
Perhaps we all

(when interred)
devolve to a scatter

of ions,
an interruption,

an error
we meant to correct.

Orange Juice

My mother sets a small glass
in front of my father, ferries pills

on a napkin—all colors, all sizes—
reminds him to take them all.

Outside, ivy swarms our small hill.
The walnut tree fattens nuts

within fuzzy husks, and the olives
don’t care what kind of stinking mess

they make on the front walk.
Orange groves have long since disappeared

from this neck of the woods, but they linger
in logos and attitude, scent of blossom

and bark someone, somewhere
might bottle, label: California.

Our juice comes from a tube, I’ve seen it,
frozen, slithering in one wet lump

from the can, my mother precise in the ratio
of water to concentrate, clinking her long spoon

against the pitcher’s insides. It will be years
before I taste fresh-squeezed,

smell the spritz of real juice
released from what binds it.

I eat my Cocoa Krispies,
cereal that grows too soggy too fast,

milk on my chin, while my father
reads the paper, one leg crossed over

the other. Soon he’ll walk out the kitchen
door, fortified by added vitamins,

a baby aspirin, all the things my mother
offers, this conspiracy to keep him alive.


My mother taught me to write
VOID on a bad check—

not a check that was bad in that
it reneged on its promise,

or bad in that it had misbehaved
or gone off,

but bad in that we’d made
a mistake,

written the wrong date
or a wrong number,

wrong decimal point
in the wrong place.

VOID, pressed hard enough
to trace each letter

through to the duplicate—
VOID replicated

so that later, when trying to balance
our books, we’d understand

where the missing had gone.


as in un:
the way a door

will loose from its mooring
in a sudden wind:

all night I heard it:
my old screen moaning

against bare twigs. I knew
I should do something:

get up, joints stiff:
internal fulcra that enable

a body to move. But I couldn’t
move, and the dog barked an alarm:

it sounded, after all, like an intruder:
someone trying to get in.

You don’t notice them until you need
to, the many types of hinges:

Butt or Barrel, Butterfly or Piano:
each quietly doing a job

of coupling. Sometimes
you have to oil them:

get out the WD40 and squeeze:
just so. I want

my father to do it, want him
to show up with his toolbox:

screwdriver, wrench, plier:
every tool you’d ever need, oiled

and ready. He’d hum a little between
his teeth, assess the best approach:

take the whole thing down, or merely adjust:
a little lube here, a tap of the hammer there—

Hinge, as in depend upon,
the smallest things always the most vital:

even the heart, so full of small valves:
they open and close a million times a day.

I wonder if the door between here and gone
swings on a well-used hinge. Think of the piano:

the way the top opens, propped up:
the only way music can fly.

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Third Edition forthcoming Summer 2019). She co-authored The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, with Holly J. Hughes. Her creative nonfiction work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop.