Introduction to Malcolm Miller, Poet of Salem

by Rod Kessler

Rod Kessler

Rod Kessler

In the early 1990s, Malcolm Miller knocked on the door of my consciousness by placing into my English Department mailbox at Salem State an unsolicited self-published volume of poetry. The book, bound by staples, its card-stock cover an unpromising gray, contained within its 72 pages  a scrawled note suggesting that I send back five dollars if I liked the writing. I was a snob about “vanity” publishing and gave the poems barely a cursory look.

But I mailed Malcolm Miller the five dollars and stuck the book on a shelf; some months later another arrived and I sent five more.  Then another. In this fashion I accumulated a store of his 5 ½ by 8 ½ volumes.

Two decades passed. I taught writing courses, composition, fiction, occasionally poetry. I helped with the writers’ series, edited the faculty journal, worked with the honors program. Then one fine day another book arrived with the usual request, along with a note that, because he was nearing eighty, “this might be my last.” (In fact, he would continue into 2013, the poems now handwritten, not typed. His press run? Just fifteen, produced by Deschamps Printing Co. in Salem, close to his apartment.)

This time, I read the work.

To my surprise and pleasure, I discovered much to admire. Self-published or not, he was the real thing—his poems were original, iconoclastic,  sometimes as spare as Stephen Crane’s, sometimes as oracular as Whitman’s, sometimes as wry as Billy Collins’. I’d still never laid eyes on him, though his public housing project apartment was but half a mile from campus. I wrote back, asking if he would talk to my poetry undergraduates.

Not  interested.

Would he consider reading at the University?

No dice. He was “not able to meet in social groups anymore,” he wrote. He was, he continued, “hermit, anchorite, almost leper.”

In 2013, my final year as professor, I was advisory editor of Soundings East, the national literary magazine published at Salem State.  I showed Miller’s work to the staff, and the board, no easy jury to please, leapt at the chance to print his poems (nine in the end) and make Salem’s eccentric, reclusive writer the issue’s featured poet.

Malcolm Miller

Malcolm Miller

That September, carrying ten complimentary copies, I pressed his buzzer at 9 Pioneer Terrace. The  man who eventually opened the building’s door, tall, bald, frail and aged, needed to rest, sitting and breathing hard, halfway up to the second floor landing.  During the following months, we became acquainted. He gave me more books, including one of his three “legitimately published” works, the coffee-table sized Emperor of Massachusetts (1970), a work illustrated with vibrant full-color art.

A year later on September 5th, after he didn’t open his door to Meals-on Wheels, he was found on the floor of his apartment. He was 83. 

He’d been long estranged from his family, and without telling me, he’d listed me as one of his two emergency contacts. His doing so enabled me to enter his apartment before the city cleared away his few worn-out possessions. What writings I found lying there I rescued: more poetry books , the typescripts for a novel, a half-dozen plays, some prose scraps.

On November 19, his ashes were interred in Salem's Greenlawn cemetery.  Graveside stood eleven mourners, many writers themselves, reciting his poems.

He’d also given me permission and blessing to keep his writing alive. And now in retirement I am reading the fifty-eight (!)  gray-covered poetry books, selecting and digitizing the strongest pieces with an eye on getting them to you.

A Malcolm Miller Poetic Sampler 

What Is that Sound

what is that sound I heard yesterday
it was like the sound
I heard the day before
and what is that sound
I am hearing now

coming across from the sea
and from the distant mountains
and across the plains
and through the streets of noisy cities
and the quiet towns of waiting

it is the song without ending
calling to no one
in particular
calling to no one
so everyone will hear                                                         

                                                           From Poems That Need You, 1993


Like Huntresses Their Bows

why do I keep falling
in love with these
athletic young women flowing
down green meadows
pursuing with scholarly intent
pure white soccer balls or bearing
towards the sky like
huntresses their bows
field hockey sticks they wield
with such skill my applause
embarrasses even their coaches             

                                                                              From The Taste of Inexplicable Nourishment, 1994



no matter
what happens
war famine
the sky seems
to say hey
what’s the big deal
christ who can
you believe
the media
or the sky?

                                                                          From Bricks, 2009