Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Unburying Malcolm Miller: The Price of Purity

Like the nerd that I am, I went to see the 2017 film, “Unburying Malcolm Miller,” by Kevin Carey and Mark Hillringhouse, where else but at the local public library on a glorious, sunny Sunday afternoon. No matter, I sat next to an open window by the library’s Secret Garden and breathed deeply the delirious perfume of lilacs on the fresh air. Rod Kessler, writing professor, now retired, from Salem State University was showing the film as part of the Poetry Salon Series run by fellow poet and professor emerita, Claire Keyes. The film tells the story of Malcolm Miller, born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1930; he was a jobless, often homeless, “outsider” poet, who lived on air till his death in 2014, who walked the earth (sometimes walking up to 25 miles a day), who washed his clothes in the sink of the library rest room, who argued with everyone who spoke to him, except beautiful women. He had a way with beautiful women.

The film is narrated by Rod Kessler who tells a fascinating story of how he came to know the poet and his work. Miller sent him self-published chapbooks of his poetry with a request for $5 from the reader if he liked the poems. Kessler sent $5 to the return address on the envelope. He kept receiving booklets of poems and kept sending $5. Years passed as Kessler went about his life teaching, writing, raising a family, being active in the community, all the usual things people do in life. All the things Miller had avoided. Think how much writing you could get done if you didn’t have to go to a job every day – hell, think how much you could get done if you didn’t have kids or a car or a house! Kessler’s busy life didn’t leave him much time to think about Miller’s poems until one day he realized he had quite a pile and he decided he’d better go through them. To his astonishment, the self-published poems were very good! That changed everything. He sought out the poet. He asked him to speak to his class – no, thanks, said Miller. Would you like to simply read some of your poems? No, thanks. No people. No contact. Just poems.

The poems are wonderful.

In fact, the film comes to life from the poetry read by several local poets who imbue the work with their own powerful human emotions and their absolute love for poetry. I happen to know the poets in the film and they are devoted to poetry. January Gill O’Neil, Jennifer Martelli, Clay Ventre, M.p. Carver, J.D. Scrimgeour, Colleen Michaels, to name a few. We were given a printed handout of the poems that were featured in the film, which I will treasure. Already I can feel the poems becoming more and more important to me. Malcolm Miller wrote some 3,500 poems in his lifetime. Kessler said Miller sent his work to McGill University in Canada, where he went to school, and where he also became very good friends with another poet, the singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen. You can see that Miller was not without calculation when it came to his work. It’s not a secret that Kessler was a big part of that calculation.

Not only did Miller send his poems to Kessler, he named him next of kin. So Kessler was called by the authorities when Miller was found dead in his small apartment, the apartment being one concession to ordinary life that Miller did make towards the end of his life. Kessler, because of his devotion to poetry and his strong sense of justice, would also inherit the heroic task of compiling and preparing the poems for publication – “legitimate publication” – according to Kessler – meaning a good publisher who can also offer good distribution. Kessler showed us an illustrated coffee table book with Miller’s poems that had been published early on - "The Kings Have Donned Their Final Mask," that was chosen one of the Fifty Books of the Year 1969 by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Apparently, Miller fled from it. He wanted only purity. Not publication.

The interviews in the film are also wonderful. The people who knew Miller had a lot to say about him. Linda Weltner, whose column in the Boston Globe was a favorite of mine – I used to open to it first before reading anything else – provided much needed comic relief. Everything she said in the film got a laugh, the kind of laugh you’re dying to laugh, just to release some of the pressure from hearing about this cranky, old coot. In fact, Weltner called Miller “an artistic sociopath without the charm.” She said she’d been afraid of him whenever she’d seen him about town. Miller’s niece, Pamela Harris had many great stories to tell from the perspective of a child and a young woman who had nothing but love for her eccentric uncle.

After the film there was a discussion. One of the poems, called, “No!” in which Miller enters a drugstore and hears the toothbrushes and aspirin talking, really unnerved some of the audience. The word “crazy” was mentioned. Hearing voices, after all. No, no, no, no, no! I wanted to shout! It’s a poet’s mind! The toothbrush wonders whose mouth it’s going to be in next and the aspirin complains that when it has a headache, nothing helps. A very creative and exciting point of view! The poet’s mind. In Miller’s defense, he was getting old at that point. And God only knows what kind of meds he’d been taking anyway. In the story, there had been some mention of ill health, and Miller had been in the U.S. Navy, which implies a pension and health benefits. Meds can make anyone hear voices. Miller reminded me of some feral cats that go mad from dehydration, malnutrition and exposure, all of which I’m sure Miller suffered. He seemed to have that same feral cat disorientation, mistrust and offensive self-defensiveness. 

I could tell from what was being said that most of the audience felt Miller had written so much poetry and had been able to write and think so much about poetry because he didn’t have a job or kids to worry about and occupy his mind, and somehow all that had been an accident of his being crazy.

“No!” I said. Passion took over. I heard my voice call out across the room: “He ordered his life so he could do that!”

Yikes! You mean he didn’t have a family and a house and a car on purpose? Yes, damn it! That is the price of purity.

I know because I’ve ordered my life that way – not as extremely as Miller – I wanted a husband and a child - but, I've kept my life simple in order to write.  I’ve been able to control the quality of my life. I’ve had jobs, to pay my own way through college, Salem State College, before it was a university. I ran my own Indie publicity business for a while. I do not own a car. I do not own a house. I write every day. I have seven books, not all “illegitimate.” Two are out of print and I intend to re-issue them soon. I’m a self-published author because I got tired of trying to explain my work to editors, and tired of waiting for publishers. You see, I’m macrobiotic. Being macro means I have a unique perspective on life that editors simply do not get. It also means I can heal myself through diet and lifestyle changes. Oh, yes. Many times. I’m 65 years old. I wouldn’t have health insurance, except it’s the law. The most important health insurance I have is myself. As my old friend, Bill Dufty, author of Sugar Blues, used to say, “I got this organic, Japanese policy in 1974." 

As a purist like Miller, I get Miller’s desire for purity. Like him, I have lived for my work. Luckily, I consider my family to be a big part of my work. As a macro, cooking and making a home, i.e., making people, is the same as writing. You don’t get that, do you? You have to eat brown rice for at least a month before you can feel the changes. Then you realize that the food is the poem, and vice versa. In fact, my favorite poem of Miller’s is in the film. It’s called “Mystery.” Since I do not have permission to publish it here, I will say awkwardly - as prose must be when trying to say what must be said in poetry - that in the poem, Miller describes a carrot, a beet and “a fine onion” as being keys to a mystery we can come close to grasping by seeing clearly what most people take for granted as ordinary vegetables. That’s my kind of madness. In “Mystery,” Miller was indeed coming close.

We are all enclosed in this body. This body that requires food and shelter. This body that also gives pleasure and pain; meaning and absurdity. Real life, ordinary life is also a poem if you have the insight and the time to write. However, it’s not only about having time. It’s about not having clutter. Purity. That infinite space, that open horizon that allows the poet to breathe, to channel, to let the poetry enter. In his poem, "Conquistador," Miller conquers life in a way Don Quixote could only dream.

Emily Dickinson. Vincent Van Gogh. Emily Dickinson left about 1,700 poems. After Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia archived and championed Emily’s work. Vincent’s brother, Theo did the same for Vincent’s 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings until Theo’s death when Theo’s widow, Johanna took over and protected Vincent’s legacy so that we have it today.

Malcolm Miller has McGill University and Rod Kessler. At the event, Kessler asked the poets in the room for help in sorting Miller’s work. I wanted to help, but I knew, I just couldn’t put aside any of Miller’s poems as being not good enough. I just couldn’t do it.

I’d like to tell you where you can see the film “Unburying Malcolm Miller,” but in typical academic style, marketing is not a strong point. Neither the filmmaker’s website, nor Facebook, nor the imdb (Internet Movie Data Base) was helpful. You could email Kevin Carey (filmmaker) at Good luck! If you can see this film, do! Till then, you can view the trailer here and wait for the poems to be published in a book. I’ll let you know if any of that changes. (see UPDATE below)

“Unburying Malcolm Miller” is an inspiration to all poets. Now, I’m going outside like Malcolm might, to sip the brevity of lilacs.

UPDATE: Future screening dates thus far for "Unburying Malcolm Miller": Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, N.J. Aug 4th at 11:30 and Endicott College, Beverly, Ma. on Sept 28th at 12:00. Stay tuned for more dates. Anyone interested in ordering a copy of the movie can send an email to 

©Patricia Goodwin, 2017

Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation. Her newest book is Telling Time By Apples, And Other Poems About Life On The Remnants of Olde Humphrey Farme, illustrated by the author.  

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