Miller, Tim, Bone Antler Stone, High Window Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780-2440-0959-5. £9.99
As the title might suggest, (pre)history and nature feature strongly in Tim Miller’s collection Bone Stone Antler (The High Window Press), but also song, fire, life.
The collection has four sections: Landscapes & Rituals, Burials (which I found particularly moving), Artefacts and Orkney. It also ranges geographically and temporally – across Europe and from 35,000-12,000 BC to AD 200, then present-day walking in Orkney.
While museum artefacts do feature in poems, this isn’t a collection set behind distancing glass. There are cave paintings – as they’re being painted. Similarly, customs and traditions, gods and goddesses, burial sites and bog bodies aren’t just described and dated; they’re brought back to life on the page.
The collection opens with the line ‘All the old stories have their fire houses’ and the three parts of this sequence Fire Houses (featuring destruction and then rebuilding) are spread across this Landscapes & Rituals section. The poems generally are fuelled by the flames of storytelling, with violent truths set alongside more positive elements of life, such as ‘Song of Trees’ (p. 52) and ‘using the color of nothing to create everything’ (‘Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira’, p.4).
Like the collection’s later title poem (p.66), many of the opening lines in ‘Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira’ (p.3) are far wider than page-length, perhaps because the flow of many aspects of life, and the creator’s impulse, can’t be easily contained. This cave-painting poem, like the collection as a whole, is full of vivid details:
‘and the fuel of burning juniper
is the aroma of something other than myself.
And to this light I mix my colors with cave water,
I mix my colors with blood and vegetable oil –
and from the sweat of the stones and the heat of my light,
an animal appears beneath my hands,
all surrounded by juniper green and unforgettable song.’
There’s ‘no violence on the walls’ but there is the ‘chaos of animals’, bears tearing at the walls to sharpen their claws and the end question: “Who is it that knows before me | what I and the bear and the bison will do?’
I’ve mentioned the theme of nature, and, in many of these poems (like the lines just quoted and the lines below) I experience mankind both as similar to other animals, yet also in some way separate.
‘Now the bear is the one who understands us –
and perhaps the bear was us, an older form
of human in how it stands on its legs…
No bear painted us, but we painted them…’
-Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira’
For me, this collection is prehistory and archaeology made interesting, real and intense – as it was lived, and how it might have felt. Reading these poems isn’t simply an act of second-hand witnessing, it’s an act of experiencing. Yes, this is ‘show not tell’ in action, and also in keeping with contemporary emphasis on experience, given the seeming ephemerality or fast-changing pace of much of modern life (and prehistoric life in a different way). This is a delightful contrast given the subject matter, and something directly highlighted in lines like:
‘you died horribly but are beautiful,
sleeping face and pointed cap and perfect feet,
a peat cutter’s slash dug into your back
but preserved as none of your captors are –
though what a price for immortality.’
-Bog Bodies: III. Tollund Man, p.39
Time, memory and veneration are themes that naturally accompany the prehistory content, along with finding meaning, as in ‘The Wanderer II (Flight from Orkney)’ at the end of the collection (p.77):
‘The price to pay for a place like that,
the price to pay for poems like these
are such scattershot, scarified syllables…
And so the motive was to make meaning and memory
a kind of barrow burial in bloom
a garlanded grave underground…’
Mostly, the poems in Bone Antler Stone are either presented as a whole unbroken flow of free verse or divided into same-length stanzas. Some line-endings emphasize important words while others break on insignificant or arbitrary words like ‘of’ or ‘a’ (in ‘The Painted Stags of Clermont-Ferrand’, p. 53, for example). I read the first as embodying the sense of ordering that we may typically try to place on history as we try to make sense or find reason in things, but the second as the reality of the lack of human control over many forces, including what does and doesn’t survive centuries later.
Poetic care and crafting is evident in many ways throughout the collection. Enjambement reinforces endurance and the flow of events and time. In ‘Walking Birsay to Swannay’ (p.60), a 16-line long sentence emphasizes the time, length and lasting memory of the route: ‘that flat curving road will never leave me, | two hours of long shadows and waning day…’. This is reinforced by a 13-line long sentence later in the same poem about ‘this long walk’ and ‘the memory I cannot now shake’ (a description that could be applied metaphorically to the effect of collection on me as a reader). Long sentences also enact endurance, continuance and accumulation in poems such as ‘St Magnus Cathedral’ (p.74).
Likewise, techniques of various types of line-internal rhyme and alliteration work together to create songlike qualities, a sense of unfolding inevitability and history echoing still now, as in the lines below from ‘The Wanderer (Flight to Orkney)’, p.58:
‘…still measuring and marking out the meaning
of the stars and the sea and the shafts deep
down through the dread earth delving for the veins,
his haggard head a mournful horde
of names and numbers and of navigation,
of what the world was and how it went…’
I could examine and explore each poem in similar almost forensic, archaeological tagging detail and still return to find new aspects to awe me. Reading from poem to poem, page by page, through the whole collection in order also brings added links and threads between poems and re-appearances that create extra connections. There’s lots to admire exploring the collection in this way, but it’s also a pleasure to dip into Bone Antler Stone and read more randomly, feeling the lines and enjoying the images and emotions evoked.
Although this collection features prehistory, the emotional drives, thoughts and scenarios depicted feel very relevant still today. The Orkney poems that close the collection explicitly link past and present. An old couple in ‘The Ring of Brodgar’ (p.68) put their hands on each stone as if they’d known it ‘all four thousand of its years, as if |these hands were still proud at having put it up.’
The Greek geographer and explorer Pytheas is a recurring figure in this section. His final testament and reassurance in the collection’s closing poem ‘The Wanderer II (Flight from Orkney)’, p.77, is that the poet should build and bury well as he will one day feel a spade on his skull and start singing (as the characters in all these poems do). Reading such songs is a balance of evidence, empathy and personal interpretation – likewise with reading poetry. I can’t speak definitively for the poet’s intentions, only my interaction and reactions. I read this as a poem about many things, including the difficulties of communication and complete understanding across such long periods of time, individual frailty, human desire for immortality, later generations’ curiosity and exploration of past lives. For me, it’s also a gentle reminder that what we create and leave behind may be dug up later by future generations, literally and figuratively.*
This section circles me back to the start of the collection, where even on initial reading I’d been struck by the fact that some poems set millennia ago might easily have been written about today, such as ‘Migrations at the End of the Ice Age’ (p.7). In ‘New Families Arrive in Britain’ (p.10) dated 5000 BC:
‘You would have watched them, weary at how they
all kept coming, and their courage to
give the tide their lot…
pig and pottery, prayer and all that’s precious
always changing by the reach and the march
over ocean and over again
of those risking removal and ruin
to weather life with those who never would.’
For me, Bone Antler Stone isn’t just a beautifully crafted, fascinating and addictive collection, it’s also a timely reminder that past history is never just the past’s.
* I could also potentially interpret this collection and the general appearance of Pytheas as a reminder that we’re all in some way wanderers through time and space/place. And I suspect each re-reading will reveal more thought-provoking layers and meanings.
You can buy Bone Antler Stone here.
S.A. Leavesley (she/her) is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer, who fits life around words and words around life. Author of four poetry collections, two pamphlets, a touring poetry-play and two novellas, she was also longlisted for the New Welsh Writing Awards memoir prize in 2017 and the essay collection prize in 2018. Overton Poetry Prize winner 2015, her poems have been published by the Financial Times, the Guardian, The Forward Book of Poetry 2016, on Worcestershire buses and in the Blackpool Illuminations, while her flash fiction publications include a Best Small Fictions nomination. An avid reader and editor, she runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Latest poetry books: How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, 2018) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, 2015). Novellas: Kaleidoscope and Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, 2017/2018).