The Common Good
May-June 2000

A Genius Obscured

by Shaun Griffin | May-June 2000

Vassar Miller is the Emily Dickinson of the 20th century.

Pity is a distraction,

I’m too mean to die.

—Vassar Miller

Late at night, I was nearly asleep on the couch; the phone rang. Jay Leach, the Baptist minister from Houston. Did I remember him? In my grogginess, there was no mistaking his tone: At 74, Vassar Miller’s seemingly endless life had been eclipsed by a final silence.

Poet, self-taught theologian, disability advocate, and feisty woman—Vassar Miller’s life was a confluence of desire, hope, and dire suffering. Few writers have been so unfailingly honest and determined to chink from the bounds of American letters a place for themselves. Paradoxically, save the admiration of a dozen of our most respected poets, she went to her grave in virtual anonymity.

A poet who wrote predominantly in traditional forms, she was among a handful of post-war formalists who wrote on religious themes. When you consider this was during the height of the Beats and the Confessional poets, choosing to write in form was not an idle undertaking. To paraphrase poet and critic Hayden Carruth, to write a poem is an act of love; ergo, Miller wrote the poems that had to be written. Those who cherish finely crafted poetry about spiritual issues, the struggle to find one’s self amidst a mostly godless world, read Vassar Miller. Not just for her countenance, but for her unflinching attempts to name the experience of an invisible woman, as in "Meditation after an Interview":

I speak myself, and my name

is only smoke

and less than smoke.

Unlike most of her peers, she was twice damned: for writing in form about such "outdated" subjects as Christ dying, and for having cerebral palsy since birth. But out of that contemporary isolation came her strength: She could not aspire to any artificial liking. Her words were the harbinger of religious feeling not imagined in American poetry since the death of T.S. Eliot.

WHEN I VISITED Vassar at Stoneybrook Health Care Center in Houston, most people did not know who she was. She was a woman, like any other, whose flesh was giving out. I asked what she needed. Books, of course, was her immediate answer. Then I read poems to her. She was transfixed, so focused on her craft that nothing could penetrate that concentration. Even in the throes of the nursing home, her mind was more lucid than many in their cars speeding the street outside.

Miller has had her champions: Donald Hall, who early on helped her publish Wage War on Silence; the late Denise Levertov, a poet not unfamiliar with political and religious isolation; Miller Williams, who read at President Clinton’s second inauguration; Maxine Cassin, publisher of the New Orleans Poetry Journal Press; and perhaps most notably Larry McMurtry. In an otherwise damning essay on Texas writers, he singled out Vassar Miller as the lone poet who would leave a half-dozen poems for posterity. There are many others who know and regard Miller’s work with the highest admiration, but the brooding silence remains.

Perhaps this is because at some intrinsic level her poems both comfort and deeply disturb. They are a bulwark of faith against unremitting doubt and perturbation. That which can never be fully said in a poem was her subject: an undying love of God and the hollow, often failed, experience of self. Just as haunting, they bore no lasting reconciliation for her, save the symbolic renewal of the Eucharist to which she returned again and again, as in these stanzas from the poem "My Bones Being Wiser:"

My flesh is

the shadow of pride

cast by my bones

at whose core lies cradled a child

tender

and terrible, like

the Lamb he prays

to have mercy,

lest the hands held up

fall empty, lest

the light-as-air Host be only air.

Yet the Child within

my bones knows better.

I do not have the good fortune of looking ahead 50 years, but if the past is any example (Melville, Dickinson), Miller’s poetry, much like her life, will come to be viewed as witness to living in a time that could not know her. She balanced the ineffable with such strength, such immutable force, that I can only believe readers will return to the vast emotional landscape she has left if for no other reason than to learn how to live when one comes to silence "Without Ceremony":

Except ourselves, we have no other prayer;

Our needs are sores upon our nakedness.

We do not have to name them; we are here.

BEYOND HER DOGS and her friends, few things made Vassar Miller happier than Sundays. She cherished the morning rituals and repetition of the Episcopal Church. In many ways it gave her structure, not unlike that of her formal poems in the "Christ-haunted landscape of the South," to quote Flannery O’Connor. In the afternoons, the liberal Baptist congregation freed her from tradition. She wrote poems and a sermon that were not altogether welcomed by the Baptists, but she could rebel, be the skeptic, and sleep with two faiths twined at her core. Conflicted to the end by the unanswered question of her worth in this world—whether flesh or spirit, she held Sundays like bread to her lips.

On religious themes Miller could parry and spar with anyone in the room. At home, the answers so readily delivered in public were slow in coming. Before her caretakers sold her house on Vassar Street (named after her mother, Vassar Morrison), she wrestled with the contradictions of flesh and stone. Her appetite for living was tamed only by the persistent drum of disability. What she wanted more than anything was love. What she found were scraps and pieces of lives and a religious community that would not forsake her: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and Covenant Baptist Church.

She also found an angel in the presence of Sue Nash. When Miller could no longer live alone, Nash purchased the house. Of her many caretakers, it was Nash who finally negotiated the legal system to bring Miller some parity and dignity at the end of her life. She had never met Miller but was overwhelmed by the deplorable situation in which she was left: a dwindling trust, few friends, and failing health. Not surprisingly, as a consequence of not having wheels or love—part of the title of her collected poems—Miller could be utterly disdainful with the knowledge of her wan existence.

Still, I can’t help feeling we have much to learn, and we will learn it without her now. Those words she left us will come like snow, and, to quote Kenneth Patchen, another poet who knew the rancors of flesh with pain, "Snow is the only one of us that leaves no tracks."

Vassar Miller is ephemeral in America. We cannot see her because she looks like a woman who may not be from this time. And her words read like a woman who may be timeless.

Not quite two years before Vassar Miller died in 1998, Gov. George W. Bush presided at her induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. Vassar looked radiant that evening, and if she could not go to the podium like the other women, she stilled the room with her diminutive frame. The governor was overtaken with emotion and did not know what to do, so he handed me her award. Politics and religion came perilously close that evening. He was effaced and without instruction; she was surrounded by her friends and waiting for his hands. It was the ultimate moment for Vassar: She was a woman finally regarded as a poet in her own time, a small measure for a life spent carving words.

Doubt was her laurel. This is not a contradiction. Vassar Miller knew little of literary greatness. She did not receive substantive recognition from her peers. Yes, the early books were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, but it was unfailingly personal conviction that moved Miller to believe she could be a poet. And the pure satisfaction of that redemptive act: creation. Over and over she fought with depression and doubt, and even when she saw her books they were like women she once knew: not the poet dreaming to be alive, not the artisan skillfully bearing down on a passage from Ecclesiastes.

Bhutanese artists aspire to anonymity. In mastery they perfect the brush strokes until it is finally accepted as art. The relative impulse toward perfection in modern poetry is driven largely by conformity. Faced with the choice of denying herself the one thing that provided pleasure, she chose instead to write the poem that would answer the breath within. This, in full view of a literary public whose scorn would not go unnoticed. Guts. The piece of yourself you toss to page after page of "infinite silence."

Vassar Miller lived within the room she created and it was not unlike Virginia Wolf’s room. Certainly it was created for the same reasons: to have a place of meaning and sustenance, an intellectual life beyond the world outside. If it was a room that could not be understood by the era in which she lived because she chose poetry and religion, among those who spend their lives one syllable at a time, hers was nonetheless a sacred act. SHAUN GRIFFIN’S most recent book of poems is Bathing in the River of Ashes. He runs an education program for homeless students and lives with his wife and two boys in Virginia City, Nevada.

Christ Dies

Christ droops upon the Cross, pale lily wilted brown,

Maker unmade, Creator uncreated,

His triumph now remaining unrelated,

Stitcher come unstitched, by His hand unsewn

Doer of all deeds by Himself undone,

A void now seems the one that we awaited,

His course once carefully set down unstated,

For God, my God! is by His world undone.

Yet faith remains itself, the unseen becomes seen

To eyes that do not swerve from hope beyond all hope

That flesh is more than flesh, that dust is more than dust:

The less I can believe, the more I trust.

—Vassar Miller, from an unpublished series of sonnets on the crucifixion.

 

A Vassar Miller Reader

Adam’s Footprint. The New Orleans Poetry Journal Press, 1956.

Wage War on Silence. Wesleyan University Press, 1960.

My Bones Being Wiser. Wesleyan University Press, 1963.

Onions and Roses. Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

If I Could Sleep Deeply Enough. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1974.

Small Change. Wings Press, 1976.

Approaching Nada. Wings Press, 1977.

Selected and New Poems, 1950-1980. Latitudes Press, 1981.

Struggling to Swim on Concrete. The New Orleans Poetry Journal Press, 1984.

Despite This Flesh. University of Texas Press, 1985.

If I Had Wheels or Love, Collected Poems. Southern Methodist University Press, 1991.

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