Pittsburgh Poet Exhumes The Experience Of Prehistoric Humans
As poetry collections go, Tim Miller’s “Bone Antler Stone” might be unique for its book-cover blurbs alone: Three of the four encomiums are not from critics or other poets, but from archaeologists, including no less than Sir Barry Cunliffe, the famed University of Oxford emeritus archaeology professor and trustee of the British Museum.
“Bone Antler Stone” (published on the British imprint The High Window) is a suite of about 70 poems exploring human prehistory in Europe, from the oldest known cave paintings to the arrival of Greek explorer Pytheas in the fourth century BCE. “Our prehistory now has its poet laureate,” writes Cunliffe of the Pittsburgh-based poet. “Miller makes old stones and artefacts sing with new life.”
Miller dates his interest in prehistory to research for his 2015 work “To the House of the Sun,” an ambitious book-length poem that’s a story of the Civil War drawing on Irish mythology. He wondered where that mythology came from, and delved further into European history.
“You get to the the Fall of Rome, and you read about these barbarian tribes and the basic idea was, ‘Who were they?’” said Miller. “So I just kept going back and back and back and got stuck there wonderfully.”
Miller evokes both the Paleolithic and the Neolithic eras. Most of the poems are inspired by archaeological artifacts, ranging from tools fashioned from the title materials to the bodies of so-called “bog people” preserved in the marshes of Europe. In “Ajvide Girl,” he uses a detailed summation of adornments to summons a young woman whose 6,000-year-old remains were found on an island off the coast of Sweden.
She was twenty years old
and the garment she wore
is gone except for a fringe
of teeth: seal teeth, fox teeth,
and the teeth of a dog.
The hedgehog covered her:
its spiked skin capped her head,
and around her neck there hung
some five clattering jaws
she kept close, in a bag.
And at twenty, already
Middle-aged, did she have
some love who thrilled to hear
the rattle of her skirt
as she slowly came near,
or the fall of her cap
to finger her young hair?
Other poems attempt to capture the spirituality of our prehistoric ancestors, and a few offer Miller’s present-day perspective on visiting archaeological sites.
Miller, a native of the Cleveland area, lives in Shaler with his wife, Jenny, and 2-year-old daughter, Evie. He’s a stay-at-home father and said he wrote the book’s final poems while Evie was taking her naps. He and his wife lived in Southern California and Brooklyn before returning to her hometown of Pittsburgh several years ago.
Highlights of his research for “Bone Antler Stone” included a visit to Stonehenge that he calls “pretty thrilling.” But he remains especially stoked about traveling to the far north of Scotland and Orkney, home to “the oldest stone circles, the oldest graves, and … probably the oldest European village, Skara Brae, and we spent a good week there just wandering around. It was astonishing really to literally touch the stones these people put up 6,000 years ago."
The site also includes the remains of habitations of a fishing village on the beach.
“To just see their huts, to see where they set their shelves, to see the place where they stored their fish, to see the place where they set their fires, to see the place where they put their bedding down, and to know even though they're not there anymore to know also that the roofs of these homes were raftered with the ribs of whales," Miller said. "So it's kind of hard for me not to be completely inspired by an experience like that.”
Many of the poems had been previously published in various print or online publications, many of them British-based.
Other than as a literary exercise, what relevance does Miller think that exploring these sites and artifacts has for contemporary readers?
"We can see from their burials the things that they that they valued by the things that are left in the ground, things that took them hours and hours, thousands of hours, to make that they chose to put in the ground," he said. "We can learn by their homes, by fortifications that were destroyed, evidence of violence, warfare. We can learn by their ritual objects that they had reverence for the divine, and a basic reverence as well for the natural world.
"And I think if you took what I just said and removed the fact that we're talking about prehistoric people, I don't think that there's really much difference at all. You can really recognize yourself pretty easily if you allow yourself to, I think."
Miller secured the blurbs from archaeologists by sending them his work. He said he sees his mission as a poet in this case as similar to an archaeologist’s: interpreting artifacts. Miller is gratified that the archeologists praised his work. “One of the most renowned archaeologists in Britain [Cunliffe] had that [blurb] to say about it, and he’s been doing this for 60 years,” Miller said. “So the idea that I had delved into this stuff, and it came out in a way that seemed not only truthful as poetry but truthful as history meant an immense deal to me.”
The book has also drawn praise from non-archaeologists. “The scope of this collection is extraordinary, and the depth of research admirable,” wrote Sarah Law in “The Amethyst Review.” "But Tim Miller’s poetry wears its learning well enough to draw in a non specialist reader."
“Bone Antler Stone” is available at selected bookstores and through Miller’s website.