Bone Antler Stone by Tim Miller: High Window Press, 80pp ISBN 9780244009595
The scope of this collection is extraordinary, and the depth of research admirable. But Tim Miller’s poetry wears its learning well enough to draw in a non specialist reader. Prehistory is a gift to the poet in that it can offer the mysterious, poignant detail as well as an intriguing archeological backdrop; it can present us with belief systems and artistic perspectives that are profoundly other to those recognised by contemporary culture. But in skillfully wrought poetry such prehistoric elements can still offer points of connection and food for thought. From cave-painting, to stone circles, to arcane and moving burial rites, Miller’s poetry here is eye-opening, often moving, and carefully mapped throughout. Each section literally starts with a simple diagrammatic map, which helps orient the reader on the European locations of the poems.
‘Landscapes and Rituals’ starts the collection off powerfully, charting imaginative turning points where landscape itself ‘was not enough’ (‘Sanctuaries’) and our prehistoric ancestors brought their gifts of honey, fruit, wine, metal, fire, and bone to sanctify and protect. There are vivid sensory details throughout, and often the poems themselves take on an element of liturgy, such as the refrain line in each tercet of ‘The Sun Sets into the Sea.’ This section has some poems previously published in Amethyst Review, namely, ‘Sanctuaries’ and ‘Two Gods’. Vivid, evocative poetry engaging with ancient concepts of the sacred, and a rich prehistorical resource in its own right – Amethyst recommends.
The most moving section is arguably the subsequent ‘Burials’. With life brief and uncertain, burial rites and afterlife mythology become so much more significant. Some sites, like that described in ‘Magdalenenberg Burial Ground’, contain a buried hero who is a sun around which his lesser contemporary are laid out like planetary configurations: ‘men and women become moon and stars/ orbiting something other than the earth.’ By contrast those without fame or means have a painfully quick interment: the ‘quick unloading’ of ‘Tomarton Ditch’. This section also contains poems on the long dead preserved by peat and earth: the so-called ‘bog bodies’ made poetically immortal by Heaney in Wintering Out and North. Some poems even have the same title and subject as Heaney’s poems: ‘Tollund Man’, ‘Grauballe Man’. Others are new subjects; in fact, several bodies in this section (though not all) speak in the first person: the poems tend towards lucid monologues rather than Heaney’s meditations on the cycles of history and the role of the poet. There is some beautiful language and imagery throughout, for example in ‘The Egtved Girl’, ‘set down toward the dawn sun’ in her simple clothing and jewellery.
The subsequent section, ‘Artefacts’ demonstrates the power of prehistoric cultural and architectural fragments to contain wonderful poetic resonance. It’s followed by ‘Orkney’ where the poet is a more tangible presence in the Scottish Isles and the poems that flow from it. I particularly liked the two part ‘The Ring of Brodgar’ where in the first of the poems an elderly couple visit the stone circle and time itself seems to buckle and stretch as they lift their aged hands to the ancient sandstone: ‘a situation of stone they’d known/ for all four thousand of its years, as if/ those hands were still proud at having put it up.’ This especially is strong poetry, offering startling insight borne of careful observation.
Sarah Law, August 2018