Jennifer Stewart Miller’s Thief

Jennifer Stewart Miller’s new collection, Thief, (Grayson Press 2021) begins with the poem, “My Dead,” wherein she says, “Maybe your dead / are kinder. But mine— / they won’t look you / in the eye. Won’t / say sorry or / bare their hearts.” Such are the privileges of death, one might argue. But not Miller. Instead, Thief is a collection of poems that gives voice to the deceased. They seldom say they’re sorry, but their hearts are revealed all the same.

Miller’s poems have a history of this sort of exploration. Her chapbook, The Strangers Burial Ground, recreates the lives of historical people found in New England cemeteries. But Thief hits far closer to home. These poems are more personal. In Thief, Miller explores many different forms of her own personal grief. There is the grief that follows the deaths of her father and her stepfather. But there is also the grief of a sister lost to addiction and ongoing mental health crises. In these poems are also incredible depictions of the ways that the living manage (or are forced) to endure, often because of everyday necessity. This is perhaps best explored in her poem, “The End,” where Miller writes:

I keep coming back to how my mother
left my stepfather

at Rutland Regional Medical Center
to hurry off to the bank in Granville—

thinking she could still add her name
to some account or other by

bringing in a few shaky words he’d
scribbled on a scrap of paper.

And that was that.
After all the grand passion—

just an old married couple
trying to sort things out.

One of Miller’s many strengths is the slantwise framework of her poetry as seen in “Poems I Probably Won’t Write About My Stepfather” that hints some parts of the past are better left unexplored no matter how much they haunt us. In “This poem has a highway in it” the poem takes on geographical qualities that reveal history, and yet, like the aforementioned highway, the poem and the narrative inside it move ever forward. It’s impossible to read this poem without feeling such forward momentum that you feel part of the narrative.

Another of Miller’s strengths is her knowledge of the natural world and a gift for mixing biological details with current events and elements of her own life, as in this poem:

To the Dead Striped Bass Swimming in Sunset

Swim on, beached beauty, agog
in the chilly marsh, aglow without
scales or skin. May the jut
of your jaw, your eyeless eyes,
guide you back to the sea. May
your body—filleted of flesh—
follow so lightly. Long, supple,
golden spine. Ribs vaulted with
air and light. Moony-white tail.
Even the waves lap you a prayer—
undulate, undulate. Striped bass—
gather up my newly dead, school
with them, show them the way
out of the still-dead April grass.

And the title poem, “Thief” celebrates the masked banditry of a raccoon even though its life is fleeting. “Tonight, I’ll raise a glass to what moon there is,” Miller says in this poem, “and lick up every last tongue-full of grief.” And really, this entire collection is like a celebration of that sweet taste that comes alongside grief. How would we go on without it?

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