Matt Miller


The Yucca Hunters


Morning in Baja grunt heat like a pregnant hog
clumping full-titted through the dust and shit
of a Puenta Colonette patio. My steps tangle

as I cross the scrubs of vegetation. The breaths
of angry ghosts press down on my naked back
and this garbage yard desert of abandoned time,

tin shack churches, and lizards waiting in
the sand, patient for our outcome. Booted
and gloved against the wide lances of leaves I rip

another summer-dead shrub of yucca
out of the earth. With their long center stems
and wide drooping leaves they look like Lorax

trees, or that’s what I’m thinking as I haul
four of them back to the pickup truck, stomping
over the rattlers and scorpions that rumor

in the cacti, a plug of Red Man snug inside
my cheek. I heave the yuccas one by one
onto the pile already stacked ten feet high

in the Chevy’s bed. Alone in the sky the sun
furnaces with hate. I wipe dirt from my face
and watch the others drag their catches back

across the sizzle that dizzies my vision, and I
can’t imagine the need for the fire these plants
will keep alive. But this is the desert, and

it will turn cold. Winds will blow off the coast,
rumbling waves over the shipwrecking rocks,
the Pacific howling at the animals

she spat upon the earth. Night will sing
the flames to dance across the piles of yucca
as we set fire to the dark, circle in echoes

of whalebones, conch shells, and surfboards.
Slurping down greasy chunks of smoke-cooked pork,
we’ll bury bottles of wine and beer, leaning

back from the blaze, cross-legged in the sand,
swirling constellations with our hands,
our voices coyoted up to a July 4th moon.


Piscatory Diner


I’m squeezed behind Formica and chrome, sitting in a diner booth
waiting for my steak and eggs, spitting tobacco into an empty Coke can,

and scratching some words on a paper napkin,
just hoping to hook a rhythm on stale bait while

outside in the millbrick midnight, the canals of the Merrimack
run red in the blood glow of brake lights.

Casting my lines across these city veins where carp slip in the muck
among blown tires, immigrant bones, and the used-up breath of

all of us bottom-feeding for meaning, I try
to fishplate this downtown mise en scène

of a hooker named Flowers sucking glass dick in an alley,
then stiletto-stepping through the parking lot

where a couple stumbles toward their car from the Worthen bar,
their tongues tangled as they lean against a burnt-out street light

while two kids hooded in gang rags slide like cobras
into the diner, smoking butts and taking stools in the corner

near Jimmy Sullivan, the old bantam weight whose sauced body
bobs and weaves over a half-eaten turkey sandwich

served by a waitress walking under nicotine halos
who smiles through too much makeup at me going hungry

as a hairnetted cook throws baking soda on a grease fire
that shuts down the grill for the night.




That the greasy pop-pop
of a semiautomatic wrecks

the air before I can get off
the couch, before my wife yanks

our baby daughter
from the new fallen flesh

of pomegranate and runs
inside before their car horrors

past our fence is true.
That this winter this town

has more bullets than rain
gutters in truth but is not true. But the bullets

are true. Candles, rosaries, the roses
that shrine the street corner

are true beyond the next day stare
of faces watching me walk

behind a stroller. What’s true
is the wound

channel, that human tissue jumps
from a bullet like water

from a diver. One
boy bled out where he fell.

The other on a table
at a university hospital. Drawn

blinds are true, checked locks. Smiles
have too much teeth to be true.

What’s vital is the crush
mechanism, the permanent hole

a bullet makes in that moment
I’m watching

my wife and child each time
they fail to reach

the door. Noises at night grow
skin, grow fur, spring fangs

that scratch and score casement
glass and hinge

between what’s true. And what isn’t?
That I wrote down the names

of the dead, thought it should be.
What’s real are the costs

of moving, of staying, the recoil
from a too early doorbell,

the ten to fifteen seconds left
to a body when the heart’s

instantly destroyed. What’s left
is our fence five feet from

the street, the house thirty feet
from the fence, the front wall

four inches of California
bungalow and then her crib.


Club Icarus


We’re no more than a few silver
seconds in the air when that winged
and cocky boy gets sucked
into a turbine sparking off a fire
that rips the starboard wing
away from the fuselage, shucking
passengers out and raining
us over Northern California, dozens
of us dropping towards the bay
and you can imagine the screams,
I’m sure, the prayers cast up
then down the twirling sky,
and yet here’s my daughter
laughing the whole way
down, her yellow hair whipping
around her first teeth smile,
as she titters at the tilted
wonder of what was happening,
rolling airborne over and over,
as we all drop like sacks of wet
clay and for a second I want to snag
her, to show her how frightened
she should be, so I can hug
her safe one last time, but the way
she looks laughing I just can’t
and so as the brick of the bay
comes up to kiss my back I watch
my little girl giggling, grinning
floppy-cheeked into the wind
and then, damn, if I don’t see, right
before the world splits my sides,
wings like blades butterfly
from her back and lift her
laughing back into the blue.

      return to poetry

Matt W. Miller was born and grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts. He earned a BA at Yale University, where he also played varsity football, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His poems have appeared in Slate, Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Third Coast, and other journals. His first book, Cameo Diner: Poems, was published in 2005. His newest collection, Club Icarus, winner of the 2012 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize, was released in January.  A Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, Miller has been nominated for five Pushcart Prizes. Currently, he is an instructor of English and a football coach at Philips Exeter Academy. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife and their children.