Shortly after I’d graduated from college and was teaching, one of my coworkers at Houston Community College, Eddie Gallaher, introduced me to the poetry of Leslie Adrienne Miller. “She’s good,” he said. “You’ll like her.”
He spoke of her as if he knew her personally. She was a contemporary poet, still producing work. He handed me her book Yesterday Had A Man In It. The author photo on the back cover was of a beautiful, young looking woman.
I had never read Miller’s work before and was happy to take it home and give it a look. “Thank you,” I told him and slipped it into my briefcase.
That night I opened up to a random page and started reading. After that poem was finished, I flipped to another random page and started reading again. And again. Soon I just went to page one and dug in, then read the entire volume in a single night. Miller’s poems imprinted upon me in a way that other poems, other poets, simply hadn’t. I couldn’t explain why — and to this day, I’m not sure I can. I just read them and love them. I don’t flag them to teach one day, I don’t recommend them to people obsessively for two weeks after I’ve read them, I don’t leave her books out on my coffee table. I just read them and love them.
And sometimes they make me want to write.
When I first read Yesterday Had A Man In It, I finished it in the middle of the night after a long work day. At the time I was on a sestina kick; that was my favorite and go-to form back then. (I confess I still enjoy writing them.) At that time I was trying to process a relationship that had sort of maybe ended but not for any identifiable reason other than distance. It had been with a good man whom I loved, who wouldn’t say he loved me but sometimes really acted like it. And the relationship didn’t appear to have truly ended. It was in a weird place, and I was willing to allow that without complaint because of the possibility of something more our current friendship promised.
It’s possible I may have been emotionally delirious.
At any rate, I picked up a pen and a legal pad and, in response to Miller’s book, wrote this poem. It first appeared in my chapbook Barefoot on Marble: Twenty Poems, 1995-2001.
Bleeding the Sky
In the time when my fingernails
were painted to perfection with a color
called “Granite” (poorly named, for proudly I wore it), I wished
for perfection poetic like the sky’s and knew as do the sage
gods (with wisdom buried and hard to recognize) it did not exist, could not
exist, as long as I thought about, wished for it.
I understood finally that it
was no small thing, that I could not drag my fingernails
across the sky (dark as a blackboard) and not
expect it to bleed with a dark color,
the color of wild primrose and sage
bound together with the strings of a deep red wish.
And I read the other poems, the wishes
of people who had scraped past its
perfection, beyond the sky where stars (like sage
old nuns) lay embedded like granite pebbles, breaking my thin fingernails
when I disagreed and tried to scrape them away to write their pale colors
out of the sky. And those other poems were not
gentle! Their words twisted my heart into knots
and turned my brain onto its side, wishing
for darkness to overpower their colors:
fear and passion and shame and anger, and love so deep it
grows outward from myself until its reach is longer than my fingertips’ –
even after I’ve stretched my arms out to touch the sagging
sky. And those other words were the sky, painted in colors (sage
and wild primrose and granite and black and red) and not
forgiving of my inept, fumbling fingers.
But I wanted to write! And even so I wished
a paradox: for you to hold my impulse down, to keep it
from spilling the perfect sky’s blood-colors
on my hands… but even now I do not know how to keep the colors
from their heaviness, to stop them from their sagging.
Had you been there you’d have had no small task holding it,
that fire-out-of-bounds impulse, and I could not
have been responsible for my actions or my wishes…
But I might have held you down with the sky (saved from my nails
by the exquisite distraction of you), my fingers dipped in the colors
of sage and wild primrose red (the hues of wishes
never before filled), not ashamed to paint granite words all over you and love it.