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todd moore | the sea, the poem, and the house of all possible myths: the poetry of milner place

The sign of a good poet is that he lives in the House of all Myths. His walls are plastered with ancient stories the way some houses are decorated with paintings of the old masters. The stories are concocted of known and unknown signs and on dark and stormy nights the poet has the power to make those signs move, shift the stories around like the chapters of an endless book and if he does it with speed, clarity, and genius, the walls of that house will soon begin to sing with the power of the universe.
When I start to read a book by Milner Place I get the same feeling. I know I am entering into the house of a poet who knows all the best old stories and it almost feels as though I am leaning over the beer of all beers while he begins. With me the reading always gets tangled up with the sound of the poet’s voice and if I don’t know what he sounds like physically I have to imagine that because the sound of the voice and the texture of the story have to somehow mesh together to weave the magic of the man.
It happened exactly that way when I read the first poem from CAMINANTE called The Man Who Had Forgotten The Names Of Trees. I hadn’t even read the poem but I already loved it because I loved the title. It hit me the way a hammer hits the best part of all of my dreams but doesn’t shatter them. Instead, that hammer wakes them into some different kind of awareness.
And, if The Man Who Had Forgotten The Names Of Trees is about anything, it’s about movement. Movement on land, movement across water, everything happens quickly in a Milner Place poem. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Place had somehow tapped into the secret vision of Heraclitus.

I am not ashamed of dying
nor of arguments with the sea’s skin
that are quickly resolved, nor of ignorance
of the ancestry of unlikely fish, teeming
where the rocks wedge the cold currents,
stem their appointments with dissipation.

Here, the word ‘teeming’ is a key word for both this poem and for much of Milner Place’s most important work. Milner Place’s poetry literally teems with life, with movement, with a geography of words that shift with the voice. This stanza from The man Who Had Forgotten The Names Of Trees proves the point.

Tonight I prefer mountains,
stumble ashore with a machete
to hack a path through the sea-grapes
and the poison-wood thickets
to the pampas. Having no fear
of gauchos, I rope a passing horse.

Place writes with great knowledge and intimacy about both the sea and the land because he has lived in so many cities and countries around the world. His great love, however, is with the sea because for so many years he had been a sailor and sea captain only retiring at the age of fifty seven to a small village in England where he has been writing poetry ever since. However, when I say poetry, I don’t mean to suggest that this is poetry in the tradition of Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin. Rather, Place’s work belongs more in the line of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas. And, it has also been strongly influenced by Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda partly because Place has lived in so many Spanish speaking countries. Still, Place’s poetry is anything but derivative. I know of no other poet working in the English language who writes like Milner Place. His work is just simply unique, one of a kind, and in a class all by itself. Even though Place writes in a Post Modernist world there is nothing PM about him. Instead, his work, for me, is that of a scop, a maker, an ancient storyteller. All of his poems are narrative and all of his longer poems embody an epic grandeur in the way the old stories were told. This, from Costalago:

The shadows were still long when Henrique moored
his horse
outside Juan’s store, and, as it was too early for cockfights,
the street was deserted, even by dogs….

Place has a rare talent for setting a scene. However, his genius is for moving a poem at breakneck speed from scene to scene and in some poems the scenes all seem to melt into each other. And, it is in this way that they become dream like, in certain ways nightmarish. In Charlie Ottoway, a poem from IN A RARE TIME OF RAIN, the poet writes, “To hell with reality,” which may also be a subtle key to Milner Place’s work.
In a larger and very important sense, Place’s work deserves more attention than it has apparently received so far simply because it carries within it great resonances of buried legends and myths. In fact, Place the poet almost reminds me of the ships captain in The Legend of the Flying Dutchman due to the fact that by writing poetry Place is still out there at sea, still trying to sail around his own personal Cape of Good Hope.

What is so fascinating about Milner Place’s sea poems is that they conjure so much beyond themselves. When I think of Place’s ocean, I also think of Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, I think of Melville’s MOBY DICK, I think of Conrad’s LORD JIM, I think of Richard Hughes’ A HIGH WIND TO JAMAICA.

The ocean was little changed. It stretched and stretched;
it rolled and rolled and like a whale oblivious to sea-lice
and barnacles, ignored the self important wriggling of ships….


While I was writing this essay it occurred to me that Milner Place might have met Hemingway somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico while captaining a yacht. Maybe they had a drink together in Havana. Or not. Maybe Place recognizes Hemingway but decides not to intrude on his privacy. It’s some joint with rifles and harpoons and bayonets and gaffs decorating the walls along with nets, ropes, spikes, belaying pins, and old snapshots of big catches, huge marlin, the stuff that legends are made of. And, Hemingway is telling the bartender that he has just finished writing THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA and is tired and also happy and the bartender pours him a free one and then honors Hemingway’s long silence with a silence of his own. And, Place just sits there enjoying his beer and Hemingway’s silence and the feel of the sea which is just a short walk from the doorway toward the House of all Myths and the poem to end all poems. And, Place knows he will write it and then swim with the whales.

Some of Milner Place’s Books

IN A RARE TIME OF RAIN, Chatto & Windus.
CAMINANTE, Wrecking Ball Press.
ODERSFELT, Flux Gallery Press.
WHERE SMOKE IS, Wide Skirt Press.
PILTDOWN MAN & BAT WOMAN, Spout Publications.
THE CITY OF FLOWERS, Spout Publications.

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