The title poem from Michael Miller’s new collection, The First Thing Mastered, depicts a child helping his father build a deck. It’s a simple enough image: a boy and his father spread out the wood one plank at a time in the yard behind their house:
The first time, together, they laid out the steps.
Grab the fattest part of the wood
and avoid touching the splintered ends.
Walk with them pointed sideways,
never toward the eye.
The poem goes on to construct the world through the eyes of a child glimpsing adulthood for the first time.
The winds hit every few days this season,
nature’s joke on the yard
that barely has time to teeter back.
They clear the grass but seldom walk on it.
The patio holds his mother’s reading table,
the deck the tricycle he’s outgrown.
What is the first thing mastered? Is it a sense of accomplishment? Is it the act of construction? Or is it participating in adulthood in a way heretofore unrealized?
To me, Miller’s poetry poses a question we rarely take the time to consider. When was the first moment when we believed we had become masters in our own right? When we looked at the world not with the uncertainty of a child, but the certainty of an adult? As adults living in a decidedly digital age, we speculate openly about replacing the construction of decks with 3D printers. We are, we like to think, masters of our domain in ways our ancestors (and our younger selves) could only dream of. We forget there was a time when the world was uncertain. The dark shapes in a summer storm that held us at the window; the prospect of riding a bike with only two wheels; a sleepover with a lover instead of a friend—the innumerable things that define the distance between childhood and adulthood.
However, as adults know all too well, age does not bring certainty. The age of technology is the age of anxiety. The age of comfort is the age of disorder. Adults often exist in a cocoon of tension, fueled perhaps by the noise around us telling us we’re in control, it’s our choice, the world is ours. In many ways, Miller’s work serves to remind us of just how false this sense of assuredness truly is. To do so, he asks us to consider not where we are, but how we got there.
Miller’s poetry is effective, in part, because it is heavily imagistic. Miller’s is the poetry of snapshots. Miller’s work does not settle on an image, but lingers on it—drawing it out, rendering it with the kind of detail that gives way to the grander meanings that come to define our lives. In another era, one might have compared this style of poetry to a Polaroid. And why not? Memories are not photographic, nor particularly reliable. Yet they continually make and remake our sense of self. The present draws us back to the past and the past remakes the present, as in “With Her for the First Time, Room 216”:
this is the hoped-for finish
of all the flights through dark,
the night drives
and the springs with friends
on a dare chasing tracks on the trail
even the eyes, three years old,
that strained into the hole
where the spider fled
each one a dream
that furthest from home
would be the greatest home of all
This is where it all ends: a hotel room. Or not. The room number will, with time, take on its own contours, germinate and give rise to new memories, new emotions. This is, after all, the “first time.” With “her.”
The poetry in The First Thing Mastered drifts from childhood to adulthood with a perpetual sense that we are not the masters of our destiny that we so frequently enjoy. The image on the cover of a sandcastle, about to be overrun by the tide, serves as a reminder that our creations are never permanent. Perhaps this isn’t as frightening as we may have thought. To the reader willing to open herself up to this uncertainty, Miller’s collection is a pleasant reminder that it’s in the oscillation between certainty and uncertainty that we ultimately find ourselves.