City Lights: The view from 70, from a fellow poet and namesake

When I was 12, I got a copy of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" album and found myself transfixed by the bridge of the song "Old Friends." The lyrics, sung in a fragile tenor by Art Garfunkel, declare, "Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be 70."

Seventy seemed terribly strange then, and now that I am 34, it still does — as does 35, 40 and every other age in between. Perhaps I live in a constant state of denial; perhaps many of us do. We are surrounded by people further on the path of life and know that we'll someday catch up to them, but how easy is it to imagine our own hair grayer, our own face more lined and our head filled with decades more knowledge?

The above is more somber than I originally intended. I was set to write a lightweight piece. But as I hold a book of poems by an identically named author who is more than twice my age — and read the handwritten inscription on the front page, "For Michael Miller, with good wishes, Michael Miller" — it feels almost like a missive from my own future.

A few weeks ago, I gave a reading of my latest book, "The First Thing Mastered," at Barnes & Noble in Huntington Beach. Amid the familiar faces in the audience were a pair of women in the front row who had come expecting to see the other poet, and they sheepishly admitted so during the question-and-answer session afterward.

I'm used to encountering other Michael Millers. When I was growing up, there were a dozen or so of me in the Orange County phone book, and I used to spot newspaper listings for a local singer-songwriter with my name. Still, the Barnes & Noble discovery felt like a remarkable coincidence, and after the reading, I went online and searched for the other poet.

Michael Miller No. 1 — I'll defer to his age by slotting myself as No. 2 — turned out to be a New York City native, born in 1940, who now lives in Massachusetts. His poems, according to the CavanKerry Press website, have appeared in the New Republic, the American Scholar, the Yale Review and elsewhere. His third and latest book, "Darkening the Grass," came out in 2012.

All impressive. But one passage in particular caught my eye: "In this new and moving collection, Michael Miller, with a clarity of focus, probes the subjects of marriage, love, war and growing older." That sounded remarkably close to the intent of my own book, which tracks the formative years from infancy to middle age. I had to know if this Miller was a kindred spirit, so I contacted him through the publisher and arranged for an exchange.

"Darkening the Grass," which arrived soon in the mail, is a slim paperback collection of 32 poems. Miller is a retired Marine, and many of the poems offer third-person portraits of veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars service organization. The book's tour de force, "Each Day," is a 13-part piece about a nearly century-old man who lives a fragile existence at home with his wife:

He looks at the raspberry pancake,

Thinks of blood clots,

Imagines death at breakfast,

And when his wife passes

The syrup he wants to grasp

Her hand around the bottle

And never let it go.

But he takes the syrup, pours it,

And swallows his fear

With each sweet bite.

Virtually all the poems in the book deal in some way with old age. Many of them also deal with rituals — the actions that we master and repeat as our ways of learning to live. In one short poem, "Moving," Miller describes a man who fears relocating because it interrupts those very routines, who finds that "His books stacked in boxes / Seemed like his body / Packed in its coffin."

The last section slows to a series of vignettes, all half a page or less and without stanza breaks, about a couple in their 80s who live in a rural setting. Taken chronologically, the poems seem to count down to the moment of the man's death.

In the second-to-last one, he walks around the grounds because his knees feel like "eggshells cracking slowly" when he stands too long, while the closer begins simply with the words, "Now he is too ill to walk."

I consider these lines and know, of course, that I am reading a different person's work. Our identical names are a coincidence. Unlike Miller No. 1, I have no military background; I have not met the people in his circles or had his experiences.

But those Simon and Garfunkel lyrics stay with me. Someday, if I am lucky, I will live as long as this stranger has. As a poet and avid traveler, I may find myself in Massachusetts with the natural world and seven decades of memory for inspiration. Of course, the idea seems terribly strange, just as every life phase has in the past.

I asked Miller, over email, if he felt the same way when he was younger. He replied that once, he couldn't imagine 70 either. And in response to my question about whether he had any advice to pass on to a man half his age, he wrote:

"The one thing I learned — I didn't marry until I was 41 and Mary and I have been together for 32 years — is to let other people be as long as they are not harming anyone, including themselves. We let each other be, and this has kept us together despite the times we bump into each other. With these thoughts in mind there is much to be thankful for."

I do have much to be thankful for, and a book like "Darkening the Grass," which tracks life down to those crucial last days, reminds us how much we take for granted. If those women at Barnes & Noble hadn't read it already, I hope they'll buy a copy in addition to my book.

Mine, after all, is merely called "The First Thing Mastered." As my namesake back East knows, there are many more to come.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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