Towards Avalon: Route 66 And Its Sorrows, reviewed by Nina Bennett
Route 66 And Its Sorrows
Terrapin Books, 2017
Carolyn Miller is a master at capturing a moment, a feeling, a remembrance, and crafting poetry that makes that moment universal. I love titles, and from the first time I saw the title of her newest collection, I had to have it. Miller’s poetic journey starts, appropriately, in southern Missouri, where she was born, and traverses the country to California. Her poems are rich with detail, and nature is a prevalent theme. We are connected to every other living thing, and Miller draws the reader’s attention to those connections. There are three named sections, and the first one opens with the title poem. The opening lines draw the reader in with their quiet statement:
...October already, the mornings dark and rain coming back
like the past...
This section contains poems of Miller’s family, and her childhood in the Missouri Ozarks, where “off in the woods a whippoorwill keeps calling/ that each moment is sweeter and more precious/ than any you will ever taste again.” (“Dark, Starry, Sticky Night: Missouri”) There is an underlying, subtle theme of sorrow in these poems that discuss the past and deceased family members, yet also a reminder to appreciate and live in the moment.
Miller takes us along Route 66 to San Francisco in the second section, where “all our sorrows fade in unexpected winter sun.” (“January”) The theme of loss and sorrow continues in this section, where “maybe no one else I loved/ would die.” (“Sunny Morning, February”) Miller’s poems are attentive, not only to the past, but to the beauty that surrounds us every day. Her writing is not the heavy wailing one associates with grief, but more a thoughtful melancholy.
Seasons and the passage of time are prominent throughout this collection. In many poems, there seems to be an element of surprise that the season has changed. The day I started reading Miller’s poems the trees in my yard were bare, yet a week later they were lush and full of the promise of longer hours of daylight:
Only yesterday: July, plums,
the first ripe blackberries. Then, one morning
the light changed, suddenly, it seemed, and for a moment
the scent of winter was in the air.
The third section has the intriguing title, Traveling Toward Avalon. Miller is quite creative in her use of this phrase, as Avalon is associated with the Irish afterlife, and has strong connections to the many tales surrounding King Arthur. Time moved differently on Avalon, and the island is thought of as a mythical gateway. The poems in this section continue themes of deceased loved ones, and the knowledge that time is passing. Miller uses the phrase in her poem, “Sunset on the 38 Geary:”
For we believe that we will be delivered,
that we will be transported in our earthly bodies,
traveling as we are toward Avalon , the Island of the Blest,
with its golden apples and its lake of fire.
As the closing section, these poems imply a journey moving inexorably toward conclusion, a large metaphor for the book itself. Miller’s skill in weaving together her large themes (time passing, deceased loved ones, nature, and journeys) is impressive. This is the work of a mature poet, one with enough life experience to realize tears are mixed with joy, and nothing is permanent.