On Friday, July 29, I participated in a poetry reading to honor the publication of a book by the 29-year-old poet Jeffrey Miller, who was killed in a car crash after his birthday party on July 29, 1977. Several poets who knew Jeffrey when he was alive read his poetry from a little stage in the tiny town of Monte Rio, Calif., where Jeffrey lived and died. The poets were now old, in their late 50s and early 60s, and one of them had to be helped on stage where he read haltingly from a page with one-foot high letters because he couldn't see very well. And then the sacred and the magical happened: The flamboyant verses of the 29-year-old poet came bursting from all those aged visages with beauty and brilliance. The poetry took possession of all those lived-in bodies and transformed them and the audience into a vibrant, young organism.
One of the poets, Gail King, said that Jeffrey's poetry was "peopled," that unlike other poetries or artistic creations (like her own photographs, for instance) which concentrate on landscape, Jeff put people in his poems. The people in Jeff's poems are of all kinds: lovers, friends and enemies, but also ridiculous or pathetic characters that could only exist in mid-70s California. The peripheral cast includes hitchhikers, Hell's Angels, fanatical vegetarians, spaced-out drug zombies, serial killers, Richard Nixon, Charles Manson and Patty Hearst. The music of Miller's poetry is early punk, and he prefigured the coming of Kurt Cobain. If he'd lived and been able to sing, he might have had a career in the company of Cobain and joined some of his cultural heroes like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Jeff didn't live, and he was all poet, but that is, in the end, what made the experience of hearing it even denser in molecules of consciousness and art. His old friends, the survivors, became, for the space of the evening, masks for the words of a dead young poet.
Here are some of the words:
"here on The Lush West Coast
"where passion's a crime against nature,
"you stuck your tongue out
"& I felt infinity
" -- filling my ear
"like rock 'n roll"
The West Coast, the mid-summer California redwood forest, was all around Pegasus Hall where poets grown old fighting that increasing lack of passion read Jeff's poems and were seized by the infinity of their rock and roll. As for the muse who "stuck" her "tongue out," she was in the audience, too. She had been a passenger in the back seat of the car, seated between Jeffrey and another friend, Glen Knudsen. Also in the audience was her husband, who was driving the car on the fatal night. I asked him if he remembered what happened. "Jeffrey was messing with C. I turned around to look." He did. The VW convertible crashed into a giant redwood tree. Jeffrey and Glen were killed instantly. The others survived. Infinity did its job back then, and it was doing it now, on a dinky little stage on the Russian River. The bad tree had been cut, decades had passed, Nixon, Patty Hearst and hitchhiking are history, but the poetry was burning bright as ever. Don't tell me art doesn't do anything.
Jeffrey Miller's book, The Heart Is a Quarter-Pounder is published by Farfalla Press and available from Small Press Distribution (www.spdbooks.org).